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How to Check References During Employment Screening

Anyone who made a less-than-stellar hiring decision knows the same thing – sometimes, even the worst candidate looks good on paper. And with the rise of A.I. generated resumes, a well-crafted cover letter and the perfect qualifications are more accessible than ever to replicate. Thankfully, you have one of the oldest and most proven techniques in your back pocket – The reference check. It’s reliable, cost-effective, and essential to filling high-responsibility roles in fast-paced environments.

Here’s what you need to know about how to check references.

Reference Checks Vs. Background Checks

Background checks are one of the most essential parts of the hiring process. They can definitively prove whether a candidate has the appropriate degrees/licenses, a clean arrest record, and other factors that a reference check can’t tell you. But, reference checks reveal equally viable information such as a candidate’s personality, work ethic, and propensity to bring personal drama into a professional environment. 

Sure, it’s vital that a person has the years of experience required to be efficient in their role. But a reference check tells you whether that person has a history of turning in subpar work, frequently calling out, etc. And those are things that no one puts down on their resume. 

Reference Check Best Practices

Here are the best practices for conducting employee reference checks.

Schedule a time: Ideally, the reference you’re checking has all the time in the world to answer your questions, and your best chance of that happening is by reaching out to schedule an appointment. Plus, calling ahead to inform them about the reference checks gives them time to consider factors about the candidate that they might otherwise forget. 

Understand the role: Hiring managers that don’t work with the position they’re hiring may need to learn the qualities needed to succeed in the job they’re hiring for. An easy way around that is by consulting with the department head. 

The potential confusion is especially true for highly specialized roles like programming, marketing, etc. It doesn’t mean the hiring manager isn’t efficient at their job; it just means no one knows everything. By working to understand the role, there’s a better chance of hiring the ideal candidate that much faster.

Stay on topic: The reference may be a bit long-winded. Maybe the person is easily distracted. Whatever the case, it’s essential to focus on the task at hand, and the best way to do that is with a list of targeted reference check questions.

Reference Check Questions To Ask

Here are essential employee reference check questions to ask.

  • How long did you work with the candidate?
  • What was the candidate’s role?
  • Would you hire them if you were me?
  • Tell me about a time the candidate’s work ethic saved the day.
  • Tell me about a time the candidate solved a problem.
  • Can you describe when the candidate had to work with a team and how they contributed?
  • What is the candidate’s great strength and weakness?


Take note that these questions are open-ended. This helps you get the most out of each question and helps prevent you from saying more than you need.

Risks To Consider And How To Avoid Them

The hiring process is packed with compliance regulations. Here are the ones you need to know about for reference checks.

Personal Information: The reference check should be 100% focused on the candidate’s professional life. That means avoiding personal questions about religion, gender, etc. If you pass on the candidate and it comes to light you asked about personal info, you may open yourself up to legal repercussions.

Friends for References: It’s not uncommon for candidates to put down their friends and family as a reference check as though they were their former employer/coworker. The best way to avoid this is by researching the company, requesting to speak with the reference check, and going from there.

Legal Compliance: Hiring compliance regulations vary state by state and are updated sporadically. It’s your job to stay up-to-date on compliance laws, including specific questions you can’t ask. The best way to do this is by consulting with your legal department or visiting your state website and researching.


Reference checks are an essential part of the hiring process. Combine reference checks with background checks and a stellar hiring team to get the best candidates. Savvy managers leverage KarmaCheck’s fast, reliable data to identify the ideal candidate faster. Get started by contacting us today.


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