How do employers check references?

When hiring new employees, conducting reference checks is a vital part of the recruitment process for employers. Speaking to an applicant’s professional contacts helps employers gain insight into the applicant’s skills, work style, and professionalism. This allows them to make more informed hiring decisions.

What is a professional reference?

A professional reference is someone who can speak to your qualifications for a job. Ideal professional references include current or former managers, coworkers, employees (if you were their manager), clients, or anyone else who has evaluated your work performance.

Personal references like friends, family members, clergy, or instructors are generally not recommended. Employers want references who can objectively evaluate your professional abilities.

Why do employers check references?

There are several key reasons why checking references is a critical part of the hiring process for employers:

  • To verify information from the job applicant – References can confirm or provide more details about the applicant’s previous job titles, responsibilities, skills, and employment dates.
  • To get an outside perspective – Hiring managers want to speak to people who have objective insights into an applicant’s qualifications.
  • To look for red flags – References may reveal potential issues or concerns an employer should be aware of before hiring someone.
  • To help predict job success – An applicant’s past performance, which references can speak to, is a strong indicator of their potential future performance.

By speaking to people who have experience working with the candidate, employers can gain a much deeper understanding of an applicant’s abilities and potential fit.

When do employers check references?

When an employer decides to check references can vary, but it typically occurs in the later stages of the hiring process. Some common times when reference checks happen include:

  • After interviews – Once the employer has narrowed down the field through initial phone or in-person interviews, they will often reach out to references of their top one or two candidates.
  • After making a job offer – Some employers only check references after extending a conditional job offer. This approach can help them fully vet their chosen candidate before finalizing the offer.
  • Before extending an offer – Alternatively, many employers complete reference checks before making any formal offer. They want to gain additional insights before deciding on a candidate to hire.

Checking candidate references toward the end of the interview process, whether before or after the initial offer, allows employers to compare the reference perspectives with their own impressions from the interviews.

Who makes the reference check call?

Calling a candidate’s list of references is typically handled by the hiring manager, a recruiter, HR staff member, or less frequently, an assistant. Larger companies may divide reference checking duties between recruiters who handle initial screens and hiring managers who speak to final round candidates.

Ideally, the person who conducts the reference check is familiar with the job requirements and has some interaction with the candidate, such as through an interview. This allows them to tailor questions to gain the most relevant insights into the applicant’s qualifications.

What questions do employers ask references?

Employers will ask a mix of broad and specific questions when checking a candidate’s references, including:

  • What was your relationship with the candidate?
  • How long did you work together?
  • What were the candidate’s responsibilities?
  • What are the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s work style and ethics?
  • Was the candidate reliable, detail-oriented, proactive?
  • Would you rehire this person?
  • Why did the candidate leave your company?
  • Is there anything else I should know about this applicant?

Employers will tailor their questions based on the role the applicant is interviewing for and insights they want to gain about the candidate.

What do employers want to hear from references?

When checking a candidate’s references, employers want to gain honest, thoughtful perspectives into the applicant’s qualifications and fit for the role. Ideal references will provide insights such as:

  • Specific examples of the applicant’s responsibilities, work products, and achievements
  • An assessment of the candidate’s technical skills and capabilities
  • Thoughts on the applicant’s strengths and areas for improvement
  • Observations about the candidate’s work style, attitude, reliability, and relationships
  • Confirmation or elaboration on key points in the candidate’s resume
  • An opinion on whether the employer and candidate would be a good fit

References who give candid, detailed responses and feedback based on direct experience working with the applicant provide the most value to employers.

What happens if a reference gives a bad review?

If one of the candidate’s references raises concerns or provides negative feedback, the employer will consider this carefully in making a hiring decision. However, a single bad reference will not necessarily cost the candidate the job. Employers will look for patterns and assess the context.

For example, if other references are overwhelmingly positive, then one mediocre review may not be a deciding factor. Or if the negative reviewer only worked briefly with the candidate in a specific context years ago, that perspective could be weighed less heavily.

The employer may want to probe the reference further to understand the context behind any criticisms or concerns. They may also choose to discuss these directly with the candidate to allow them a chance to explain or provide a different perspective.

Can employers find their own references?

Yes, employers can seek out additional references beyond the ones provided by an applicant. Doing their own reference checks allows employers to reduce any bias in the candidate’s list and gain a more complete picture.

Employers may decide to contact previous supervisors, coworkers, or other connections linked to the candidate on LinkedIn or other networks. An employer may also ask the provided references for additional people who could speak about the candidate.

However, employers should get the candidate’s consent first before contacting any references outside their formal list. Blind reference checks could sour the potential employment relationship before it even begins.

Do employers call all provided references?

Not necessarily. Employers often call a selection of two or three references from an applicant’s list rather than all of them. This prevents excessive calls from slowing down the hiring process.

Typically, employers will focus on calling former managers and those who worked directly with the applicant versus more personal references. They look for references who can provide substantive insights into the candidate’s work performance.

If those initial reference checks raise concerns or don’t align with the employer’s impressions, they may then reach out to additional references from the list to dig deeper.

Do employers follow up with references in writing?

Sometimes an employer will follow up a reference call with a written email thanking the reference and confirming certain details. This allows the employer to:

  • Get any additional insights the reference did not share over the phone
  • Document the interaction and input received
  • Get the reference’s confirmation in writing
  • Clarify any points that may have been unclear over the call

A written follow up provides documentation and ensures the employer accurately captures the reference’s perspectives. This supplements the notes from the original phone conversation.

What information can a reference legally disclose?

Legally, a reference can discuss truthful information and observations they made while working with the applicant. However, many companies have policies limiting what current employees can disclose.

Typical guidelines include only confirming basic factual information like the applicant’s job title, employment dates, salary, and responsibilities. Opinions should not be shared without permission.

Some key legal guidelines for references include:

  • Obtaining the applicant’s consent before providing any substantive information
  • Only sharing honest observations made first-hand while working together
  • Not providing subjective opinions or speculations
  • Not making false or misleading statements about the applicant
  • Avoiding sharing private, protected, or confidential information

References who share fact-based insights made directly alongside the applicant are on solid legal ground. Defamatory or deceitful comments are prohibited.

What happens after the reference check?

Once the employer has contacted references, they will compare those insights with their own impressions and assessments. This helps them make a final hiring decision.

If the references align with and reinforce what the employer already likes about the candidate, then they can proceed confidently. But any conflicting observations or red flags raised would warrant caution and further investigation.

The employer should document reference details and keep these on file, even if they end up not hiring that particular candidate. Comprehensive notes also help if questions arise down the road.

After deciding on a candidate, the employer then finalizes and extends a job offer. At this point, reference checking concludes. Onboarding and employment begins once the offer is signed and accepted.

Can candidates see the references provided about them?

Applicants typically do not have a legal right to see the detailed notes and verbatim comments from a reference check. However, some state laws allow candidates to request a summary of the insights provided by references.

For transparency, some employers may choose to share the key themes and feedback they received, especially if their reference perspectives influenced the final hiring decision. But this is not required.

Candidates should not reach out to their references directly to ask what they told the employer. This could be seen as coercive. The candidate chose their list and ideally has a sense of what feedback their references would offer.


Checking candidate references is a standard and crucial stage of the recruitment process. Speaking with professional contacts helps employers validate resume details, gain insights into work style and ethics, identify strengths and weaknesses, and assess the applicant’s potential fit.

Conducting thoughtful reference checks allows employers to make more informed hiring choices. Wise job seekers will choose appropriate references who can highlight their qualifications and provide favorable perspectives on their candidacy.

Leave a Comment