The Do’s and Don’ts of Employee Reference Checks


Reference checks are one of the best ways to verify information from a potential employee during the recruitment process, and are usually the last ‘line of defence’ before candidates are appointed to the role.

Like every other HR function, a solid process will ensure that the right information is gathered from referees and what to do if you don’t like what you hear.

When it comes to conducting reference checks the right way, here’s what you should do, and what you steer clear of. 

The Do’s

DO be comprehensive. It might take more time, but it’s essential that information put forward in a resume can be verified. This might mean asking to see copies of university degrees, academic transcripts if necessary, or for some roles gaining a criminal history report.  Evidence of work permits, licenses and other qualifications that are relevant to the role should be physically supplied.

DO seek comments from past colleagues. Make sure to identify the length of employment, the role or position description. Speak to a manager or supervisor if possible to get information about the candidate’s work ethic, relevant skills and knowledge and other comments on working with the candidate. Make sure to give a brief description of the role the candidate is applying for so referees can give information in context.

DO be consistent. Make sure that the same process is followed with all candidates considered for the role. Each applicant should have the same level of investigation to avoid unfairness or a perception that the process is be unfair or even discriminatory.

DO ask a standard set of questions. This will ensure that all applicants are measured and assessed over the same criteria allowing them to be objectively compared against each other. Make sure to record observations and ask for the reasons for the employee leaving their previous position. Ask behavioural questions such as relationships with other staff, customers, ability to meet deadlines, project management skills and so on.

DO contact multiple referees.  Speaking to a number of people, along with the observations made when interviewing the candidate, is the best way to get an accurate picture of the applicant and increases the reliability of the process. Doing this can highlight any trends or patterns in the temperament or other characteristics of the candidate.

The Don’ts

DON’T automatically reject a candidate because of one discrepancy. There could be many reasons for an inconsistency and they should be evaluated on their significance and the relevance to the job. Sometimes the referee isn’t always in the right position to make such judgements, especially if they didn’t work alongside the applicant. Always assess the information in context. A minor overstatement of past achievements or pay need not necessarily disqualify an applicant from the position, especially if everything else checks out.

DON’T look for only the negative. There is often a tendency for employers to go into a reference checking process doubting everything the candidate has told us unless proven otherwise. This mindset, however, can over-shadow many of the positives in a candidates application.

DON’T go into the process with your mind already made up. Too often employers already have their mind made up before the reference checking stage and don’t bother investigating as thoroughly their preferred candidate. This can bias the kinds of questions that are asked and defeats the entire purpose of the process.

DON’T accept written references only. These are unlikely to give you the information that you need and you’re unlikely to see anything that is unfavourable. They also have a far greater chance of being fabricated. Additionally don’t do reference checks via social media. What you find or don’t find from pictures, statuses and other details about a candidates personal life does not mean the applicant would not be suited to the job.

By Claire Harrison – Claire is a Human Resource specialist and founder of Harrison Human Resources. She is based in Brisbane and provides specialist HR services to small and medium-sized organisations. 


About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. We help good causes find and attract effective leaders.

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