Reference Checking: Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Do I need to check references for all final applicants?

A. Yes. You should obtain several references for each final applicant and obtain these references consistently and thoroughly. Make sure to ask all references the same questions. Documentation is to be made and maintained on all reference checks conducted (see Sample Reference Check Form). These are to be kept with the appropriate search file.

Q. Can I do different background checks on each applicant?

A. No. All procedures must be applied consistently to all final applicants. Otherwise, you leave yourself defenseless to a discrimination claim.

Q. Do I need to obtain written consent from an applicant before I check references?

A. While there is no law requiring you to obtain authorization, it is highly recommended you do so. An applicant’s consent is a defense to defamation, invasion of privacy, and other tort claims that can arise. However, references must be checked whether or not written consent is obtained.

Q. I’ve heard the term “negligent hiring.” What does this mean?

A. Negligent hiring occurs when a prospective employer does not adequately check an applicant’s background and/or references and hires that employee. You may be liable for negligent hiring if you fail to investigate an applicant’s background thoroughly enough during the hiring process, and that employee ends up harming a co-worker, student, etc.

Q. What is the best method for contacting references?

A. The BEST method is to contact the reference by phone or in person. Writing the reference has been shown to be the LEAST preferable method for contacting references as there is a low response rate. Written letters of reference are often outdated and/or insufficient.

Q. With whom may I share reference information?

A. All reference information is confidential (as with all other search information) and should only be shared with those directly involved in the search process.

Q. What kinds of questions can I ask during the reference check?

A. You may ask the individual providing the reference any question that you can ask the applicant during an interview. In other words, the guidelines that apply to interviewing applicants also apply to reference checks. All questions should be job-relevant and avoid any topic related to marital status, age, disabilities, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or any other protected information. It is best practice to develop a list of questions ahead of time to be used in all reference checks. Consistency is one of the best defenses against discrimination claims.

Q. Who can I contact for a reference check?

A. The most common sources are current or former employers. This also includes peers and others who know of the applicant’s job performance. During the reference check, it is permissible to ask the referee for names of other individuals familiar with the applicant’s job performance.