Step 5: Reference Checks

You are required to check employment references of the top candidate before any offer of employment is made regardless of impressions of the person's qualifications. References are checked for three primary reasons: 1) to verify employment; 2) to verify what you have learned during the interview; and 3) to obtain employment recommendations.  Generally, there should be no direct inquiries to candidate's current employer made until it is certain the individual is a finalist for the position.  Applicants should be asked if they object to calls to references and to persons whom they have not named.  It is not wise to jeopardize the applicant's employment or the applicant's desire to accept an offer from the institution.  IF AN APPLICANT OBJECTS, A CALL IS NOT MADE.  However, if the University chooses to extend an offer to the applicant, it should be made conditional on the outcome of the reference checks.  If the applicant objects, the conditional offer is rescinded.

Failure to check references can have serious legal consequences for Black Hills State University. If an employee engages in violent, harmful behavior similar to that which occurred during previous employment, and which could have been revealed in a reference check, Black Hills State University can be held legally responsible for "negligent hiring."

Develop a set of job-related questions to be used on all reference checks. Target your questions to the knowledge, skills and abilities needed in the job. For example: This job involves writing and editing job listings and promotional material for the unit with minimal supervision. Did the candidate perform similar duties? If so, what is your assessment of the candidate's writing and editing skills?

Use a written questionnaire form so that you can document the reference check. Sample Employer Reference Check Forms can be found in the Appendices. They are also available in electronic format on the Human Resources web page.

The best and least expensive method of securing reference checks is via telephone.  If a question is one which would not be asked in an interview, it should not be asked when checking references.

When the call is placed, referees should be advised of the duties and responsibilities of the position so that they can offer relevant comments.  A structured format should be used for obtaining information as it provides for uniformity in data collection.  A telephone check can be guided toward different paths, depending how the referee is reacting to the questions.  This is similar to a patterned interview, which will be discussed later.  Some of the questions one may wish to ask when calling about a prospect:

  • How long have you known this person and in what capacity?
  • What position did he/she hold and to whom was he/she responsible?
  • How did he/she relate to colleagues, superiors, or students?
  • What problems did he/she have?
  • What were major achievements?
  • Is he/she a hard worker?
  • Does he/she express himself/herself well?
  • Do you see this person as moving up in his/her profession?
  • This is what we want the candidate to do if he/she comes here.  Do you think he/she would be a good choice?

The following are some suggestions for reference checking:

  • If you cannot reach the referee, you may want to consider not leaving a call-back.  You may receive the call when you are unable to discuss the applicant.
  • Identify yourself, your position with the institution, and the reason you are calling about the applicant.
  • Assure the contact that any discussions will be held in confidence.  Ask whether the individual is free to discuss the situation.
  • Describe the position for which the applicant is being considered.  A better evaluation can be made if offered in relation to a specific job.
  • Ask a general question, and then lead in with more specific questions, such as "What are the applicant's strengths?"
  • Allow the person to talk freely in answering without interrupting.  Frequently, a question from you at the wrong time will shut off further information.  Follow up and probe when you feel the contact is reluctant to discuss certain factors.  Often, a further explanation of why you are "digging in" will extract the information you want.
  • A technique for ensuring you've assumed the correct opinion of the person by making either of the following statements:

"I take it that you don't recommend the applicant for the position," or

"I take it that you highly recommend the applicant..."

  • Make sure you've asked everything you've intended to ask.  Conclude by asking if the referee would reemploy the individual.  This often brings out information you were unable to get by other questions.
  • Thank the referee for his or her help.

Candidates' rankings should be refined considering the additional information obtained through the phone calls to references.  The referees contacted need not be only the ones identified by the candidates.