Checking references? How, why and when to check references.

Contacting candidate’s references can offer valuable information about their attitudes and competencies that the interview phase won’t reveal. Here are some basic guidelines on how to get the most out of it.

Do you check your candidate references?

Background check in Recruitment is more commonly known as asking recommendations about a candidate from their previous employers. The most relevant aspect of checking references is that the people giving recommendations have to have worked together with the candidate; most preferred recommendations are from past direct managers and/or ex-colleagues. Depending on the vacancy, you can also ask recommendations from clients and cooperation partners.

Relevance and validity of references depend on the relationship between the people giving them and the candidate. It is wise to choose at least 2 people, who give recommendations, because based on that feedback, you can already evaluate, how the candidate would perform in different situations.

Why check references?

The main purpose of a background check is to get additional information about the candidate’s attitude and behaviour in work situations, also predict their aptitude for your vacancy. So far you’ve collected information based on what the candidate has provided; during a reference check, you should focus on the information, that’s still unclear for you. Through recommendations you get a more detailed picture of the candidate’s abilities and skills, behaviour in difficult situations, willingness to take responsibility, and relations with colleagues and manager(s).

How to check references?

There are usually 2 methods, when checking references: calling and writing.

Checking references by phone

This is the most common method because it’s usually less time-consuming, and more revealing. Some advise to use a semi-structured questionnaire, but it usually depends on the person asking for a recommendation as well as on the person giving the recommendation. What’s important is, you get the answers you’re aiming to get.

When asking for a reference over the phone:

  • Schedule the background check a few days in advance to give the previous employer/ex-colleague some time to remember important aspects of the candidate;
  • Plan enough time, so that a) you wouldn’t have to cut the reference check off because of your next appointment and b) the reference would know, how much time it would take;
  • Be sure to take notes and also ask questions that might be a bit challenging to answer.

Asking references in writing

This would be a good option to use when the person giving recommendation is not willing to do it over the phone, they have a very busy schedule, they work abroad (e.g. time difference) or when calling just doesn’t work.

When asking for references in writing, it’s actually wise to use a prepared questionnaire to be sent to the people giving recommendations. Quality and quantity of the information you get, depends on how well the reference is able to express themselves in written format.

When doing a background check, you may consider using the following questions:

  1.  When/How long did you work together?
  2.  Why did he/she leave the company?
  3.  What were his/her responsibilities?
  4.  What was his/her role in the team?
  5.  How would you describe his/her relationships with colleagues?
  6.  Was he/she independently looking for solutions to problems?
  7.  How often did he/she propose new ideas?
  8.  How willing was he/she to take responsibility and make decisions?
  9.  What kind of characteristics did he/she lack of?
  10.  Would you work with/Would you hire him/her again, if you had the chance?

When to check references?

The fact that checking references is an integral part of a recruitment process, should be clear to both employers as well as candidates. It’s of critical importance, that the employer knows how to handle delicate information so that the knowledge received during a reference check will be handled with care and kept confidential.

Although you might be tempted to skip the background check in the end of the recruitment process, because you’re already so sure of the candidate and their aptitude, don’t. It’s worth your time and energy. The better you get to know your candidates, the better your chances of making a great hire – or avoiding a bad one.


Sirli Spelman

A recruiter and human resource manager. Sirli has many years of practical experience in hiring for the IT industry – excellent in both finding new talent and organizing existing talent.

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