Checking references can be a make-or-break element of the hiring process.  Not only is it crucial to verify that the information the candidate has provided you with – such as start and end dates and job responsibilities – is correct, but you also have the opportunity to learn a lot more about the candidate than what he/she may have told you.  Speaking with at least two references for each candidate you are considering will ensure you make a more informed hiring decision.

In order to obtain the best possible information about a candidate, here are some basic reference checking Do’s and Don’ts:


  • Do Make Your Policy Clear. Candidates that you consider potential hires should be told during the interview process that reference checks will be conducted.  This will give them the opportunity to make sure they can provide you with the most updated contact numbers and also give them a chance to notify references to expect your call.
  • Do Try to Schedule a Phone Call. Reference checks are most often conducted over the phone, or in some cases a company may choose to send a written reference questionnaire via e-mail or fax.  However, the best information can most often be obtained via phone, as some people may be uneasy about putting information in writing.
  • Do Speak to Previous Supervisors. Whenever possible, speak with direct supervisors from a candidate’s most recent positions.  Supervisors, rather than co-workers, are the ones that can really speak about the quality of a candidate’s work.  If a candidate has not listed supervisors from their recent positions as a reference, ask if you can call them.  If the candidate seems hesitant to use them as a reference, this is a red flag, and you should do additional research as to why these contacts were not provided.
  • Do Ask the Same Questions. To maintain consistency, prepare a standard list of questions that you will ask all references for each candidate. This will allow for easier comparisons between candidates.
  • Do Inquire About Work Style.  When checking references, ask job-related questions pertaining to work ethic, accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses, reason(s) for leaving, and most importantly, if the candidate would be eligible for rehire.


  • Don’t Hesitate to Ask for Additional Information. Some companies have a policy that all reference checks must go through HR, or that only dates of employment and salary can be verified.  However, supervisors are often willing to sidestep these policies, especially for a good employee that they highly recommend.
  • Don’t Ask Non-Job Related Questions.  Steer clear of inquiries regarding marital status, age, health, religion, or any other questions that pertain to protected classes. This is one of the most important “don’ts,” as asking these questions at any point in the hiring process could cause legal issues.
  • Don’t Ignore Tone.  Is the reference excited to provide you with information on the candidate or does he/she sound lukewarm?  Do you sense any hesitation when responding to your questions?  These could all be red flags that there may be issues that the reference is hesitant to reveal about the candidate.
  • Don’t Stop at Reference Letters. Some candidates may provide you with letters of reference.  While these are a good starting point, they should not be substituted for a phone call.  You will want to verify that the reference letter is legitimate, and again, it’s important to listen to the tone of the reference.  Also, it is unlikely that all the questions you want to ask will be addressed in the letter.

Remember, the best indicator of future performance is past performance.  Not only will checking references help you make the best hiring decision possible, but they may also give you further insight on how to best help the candidate transition to their new role with your company.