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Tips for checking references

Always check references of your top candidate(s) regardless of your impressions of their qualifications. A mistake is costly in time, energy, and money; take the time to check references before making a job offer.

Reference checks can reveal information about an applicant's behavior with prior employers that could be critical to your decision, regardless of the applicant's skills, knowledge, and abilities. Failure to check references can have serious legal consequences for the university.

  • Check references after you have interviewed a candidate. Checking references before the interview may create false expectations and affect your ability to evaluate the applicant's qualifications objectively.
  • Conducting reference checks by phone is recommended. Written responses to reference checks rarely uncover negative factors. People hesitate to put in writing information they may be more willing to provide over the phone. Checking a reference by phone allows you to ask clarifying questions if needed. Do not let letters of reference substitute for phone calls.
  • Generally, professional references are preferred as opposed to character references.  Professional references are people who have actually worked with the candidate as their supervisors, subordinates, or colleagues.  In some instances, the reference may be a client or customer of the candidate.  A current or former supervisor is the most preferable reference as that person is or was in a position to make assessments of the candidate.  Character references may be acceptable if the candidate is new to the workforce.  Academic references from teachers and professors are also acceptable if the candidate is a recent graduate.
  • If the candidate does not want you to contact a certain employer, you need to explore the reasons with the candidate. If the candidate indicates that the current supervisor should not be contacted, inform the candidate that the lack of the current supervisor’s reference may affect the hiring decision.  Hiring managers may consider extending an offer contingent on receipt of a successful reference from a candidate’s current supervisor.
  • Develop a set of job-related questions to be used on all reference checks. As with interview questions, target your questions to the competencies needed in the job. See sample references questions (search under forms) to develop a list of questions.
  • Be sure to record notes to document the reference check.

Use the following guidelines when you are conducting all telephone reference checks, whether the candidate is a campus employee or an outside applicant:

  • Introduce yourself and state the purpose of your call.
  • Confirm that it is a convenient time to talk.
  • Briefly describe the position for which the applicant has applied.
  • Confirm the relationship between the person giving the reference and the applicant.
  • Verify basic data such as job title, duties, salary, and dates of employment.
  • Ask the same questions about all applicants.
  • Consider the source. Remember that the information is limited by the perception of the person giving it. If you receive negative information about an applicant, weigh it with data from other references before using it to make a decision.

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Human Resources
Lindsey House | 600 West Franklin Street | Box 842511
Richmond, VA 23284-2511
Email: askhr@vcu.edu
Phone: (804) 828-0177

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