Reference Checking

You will need to develop specific job-related questions for a telephone reference check.

Why reference checking is important 

  • It’s part of the selection process.
  • It helps secure successful hires.
  • It screens for a “good fit” for the College
  • It helps avoid charges of “negligent hiring.”

Be careful to avoid asking questions in the reference check that you would not ask the candidate during an interview.  All questions asked and issues raised must be job-related and similar for all candidates. 

How to conduct a reference check 

  • Be thoroughly familiar with the candidate’s file before you conduct a reference check.  Review any notes you have made from the application, cover letter, vitae, application materials and interview process.
  • Take the time to tell the person you’ve contacted why you’re doing so and explain the job duties-responsibilities-functions of the position, including the organization, department, and the number of faculty/students(undergraduate-graduate) and staff.
  • Make sure you have a written plan for the questions you’re going to ask and take as many notes as you can.
  • Don’t let opinions of others substitute for facts or examples.
  • Don’t evaluate information while you’re gathering it.  Your goal is to learn more about the candidate and collect more information.  You can assess what you’ve learned and gathered when you’re done.
  • Be alert to unusual hesitations, ambiguous or evasive responses, overly negative or vindictive responses, or overly enthusiastic responses.
  • Make sure your reference check is tailored to the position.
  • Check as many employment and personal references as possible.
  • Be consistent and ask the same questions of each reference.
  • Consider asking if the candidate would be rehired by the organization if given the opportunity and why or why not.
  • Avoid asking questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no.”

Review the duties etc. of the position and review the application materials.  Make a list of facts or qualifications to verify and a list of questions to ask.  Areas of possible inquiry could include:

  • Sociability – How well does the candidate get along with and relate to others?
  • Work habits and ability – How well does the candidate know the work and perform the job?
  • Personal character – Is the candidate trustworthy, honest, and dependable?
  • Assess technical/functional ability and attitude on the job.

When checking references, make sure you make note of the name and title of the person supplying the reference information for each reference you check.  You may also want to note the date you talk with the reference and contact number.  When conducting reference checks, be friendly.  Introduce yourself.  Indicate that you have written consent for the reference check or that the candidate listed that person as a reference.  Give a basic description of the position.  Always feel comfortable asking follow-up or clarification questions if something is not clear.  Listen to the responses – is there hesitation or vagueness?  Remember the person on the other end of the phone may be thinking about a question and the best way to answer it.  At the end of the conversation, ask the reference if they can think or recommend anyone else for you to speak with. 

Evaluating the information 

Compare information from different sources to see how they match up.  If you receive a negative reference, always check this information against another reference statement.  If needed, call again and verify people’s responses.  Remember it’s your responsibility, not the candidate’s employer or former employer, to evaluate the information relevant to qualifications.  You may have a different definition or criteria for evaluation.  What may be undesirable to the candidate’s employer or former employer may be just what you are looking for.  Do not use any of their ratings as your own.  Don’t allow the individual to give you “confidential” or “off the record” information. 

If you receive negative information from a reference, evaluate it with caution and check the information against other reference statements.  Occasionally you will encounter a reference who is so upset with an employee who wants to leave the organization that they may say anything to damage an employee’s ability to seek other employment.  You may also encounter someone with whom the candidate had a personality conflict.  You may also receive references from persons who are personal friends of the candidate and are biased in the candidate’s favor.  If you use the reference check information as a basis for eliminating a candidate from consideration, this must be documented.  Weight information in the same manner for all candidates.  What disqualifies one should be the basis for disqualifying any other. 


It’s important not to conduct references checks without a signed release from the candidate.  A signed release protects the College from being sued for invading privacy or for damages in the case where a candidate loses his/her job or fails to receive a promotion because of your reference checking.  Many time employers will only give you information regarding the position title and dates of employment.  If you have a signed release, be sure to convey that information to the reference and be careful that you don’t ask any questions that you would not ask a candidate during an interview.

Sample reference checking questions 

What were the most recent job duties?
Did the candidate get along well with management and peers?
How did the candidate’s performance compare to others with similar job duties?
Was the candidate a team player?
Does the candidate communicate well orally and in writing?
How would you describe the candidate’s teaching and leadership skills?
Did the candidate make sound and timely decisions?
How well did the candidate manage crisis, pressure, and/or stress?
How do you rate the candidate’s ability to plan short term?  Long term?
How would you describe the candidate’s technical skills?
Did the candidate earn promotions?
Why did the individual leave your organization? [Why does the candidate want to leave your organization?]
What are the candidate’s strong/weak points?
What are the candidate's accomplishments?
What were the results of the candidate's most recent teaching evaluations?
How well did he/she work with faculty peers, other faculty, administrators and staff?
How well did he/she work with students?
Give an example of his/her scholarly work and/or creativity.
How would you describe his/her success in developing others?
Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
Given the position as I’ve described it, would you hire [name of candidate] for the position?
What type of advice would you give his/her next employer to ensure success?
Do you know of anyone else in your organization that would be qualified and/or willing to comment about this [name of candidate]?
If the [name of candidate] were to come and work for us what kind of professional development opportunities do you think we should offer him/her?