Platform Overview

Employment Reference Checks [ 9 Key Areas to Ask Questions About And Legal Considerations ]

employment reference checks

Employment reference checks are an essential part of the hiring process. Conducting reference checks ensures you get to know your candidates well so you can hire the right people for your business.

The best way to check references is through phone calls with a candidate’s professional, character, and personal references. 

Through this background check, you’ll be able to gather information regarding a candidate’s employment history, work ethic, interests, responsibilities, problem-solving abilities, performance under pressure, and more.

In this article, we’ll outline the best questions to ask, key areas you must address, and legal considerations when checking the references of a job candidate during this process. 

Read along!

Table of Contents

What is a reference check?

In the hiring process, a reference check refers to when a candidate’s references are contacted by an employer, recruiter, or hiring manager. 

A reference check allows a hiring manager to receive information from a candidate’s former supervisors, employers, educators, co-workers, personal acquaintances, or any other reference the candidate has listed.

The primary purpose of a reference check is to allow a hiring manager to collect information so they can determine whether the candidate is the right person for the position. The information collected in relation to a candidate can include the following:

  • Work history
  • Work duties
  • Work productivity
  • Education history
  • Skills

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8 Tips for reference checks 

  1. Determine the type of reference you require and the goal of the reference check
  2. Ensure you have the correct contact information for the candidate’s references
  3. Prepare a list of questions you’d like to ask during the reference checks
  4. Ask your company employees who met the candidate for suggestions regarding what information you should obtain during employment reference checks
  5. Don’t rush the reference checks
  6. Focus on the facts provided by the referees rather than how they deliver the information to you
  7. If the candidate’s previous employer doesn’t allow references to be checked, you should learn about the candidate using other resources. This includes other former employers and LinkedIn
  8. You should make sure you’re checking the references yourself if the candidate will be working under your supervision or management. This is because you’ll be able to ask questions that directly relate to the prospective employee’s position

Key Areas To Address In Every Reference Check

During the reference check process, there are certain questions that must be addressed. The questions you must ask depend on whether you’re performing a personal or professional reference check.

However, the same basic principles apply. It’s important to ask the right questions so that you can gather relevant and useful information. You can also ask the referee to elaborate on their answers.

For example, they could provide further information regarding the candidate’s specific role, leadership moments, projects they were working on, etc. 

Key areas to address during the reference interview process include the following:

1. Candidate Verification

The most important aspect of the reference check process is verifying the candidate’s identity. Firstly, you must start by ensuring the person you met during the interview is the same person applying for the job. A list of questions you can ask include: 

  • What was the candidate’s role at your company? 
  • What responsibilities did their role include? 
  • Were they responsible for any of their former employees? 
  • Why did they leave this job? 
  • What caused the candidate’s employment to end
  • What was the candidate’s job title?
  • What were the candidate’s dates of employment?

These reference questions are all useful for verifying the validity of the candidate’s resume and job application. 

2. Personal Questions

When performing personal, character, and professional reference checks, it’s helpful to ask the referees broad questions regarding the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, personal attributes, working style, and the candidate’s skills. 

For example, reference check questions you can ask a professional referee include:

  • Would you consider the candidate to be a valuable and productive employee?
  • Would you rehire the candidate?

3. Responsibility-Based Questions

It’s essential to see how the candidate handles responsibility, given that every job involves some level of responsibility.

When speaking to the referee, explain the nature of the job the candidate is applying for, its requirements, and responsibilities. You should then ask them, ‘ Do you think the candidate will be able to handle the responsibilities of this position?’.

You could also benefit by asking the referee to provide examples of times when the candidate showed the level of responsibility required for the position.  

4. Leadership Questions

Every job requires leadership in some form. To analyze the candidate’s leadership skills, you can ask the following questions:

  • Did the candidate have any leadership roles?
  • What were they responsible for?
  • How well did they deal with this leadership responsibility?
  • What type of leader were they? 
  • Were they efficient, inspiring, productive, or helpful as a leader?
  • What would be the best word to describe their leadership style?
  • What would you rate their leadership skills out of 10?

5. Stress, Pressure, and Problem-Solving related Questions

Finding out how a candidate deals with stress, pressure, conflict, adversity, and problem-solving is essential before providing a job offer. This is because these factors can have a large impact on a candidate’s performance at work. 

Employees are human, so they’ll have a few flaws. Identifying their flaws will be key to analyzing their employability. Contrastingly, it may also highlight their strengths.

You could ask the referee the following questions for this area:

  • Does the candidate work well under pressure?
  • Can they solve problems quickly and effectively?
  • Are they able to think creatively when things get stressful?
  • How well do they handle conflict at work and with clients?

6. Work Environment Questions

The workplace environment can be complex and have a big impact on whether your company succeeds or fails. Therefore it’s crucial to create the best work environment for your employees. To find out how the candidate behaves at work, you can ask the following:

  • Did the candidate get along well with their former manager and co-workers?
  • Are they introverted or extroverted at work?
  • What is their working style?
  • Do they prefer to work alone or in a team? 
  • Are they a self-starter?

When you ask about a candidate’s interactions in the workplace, you can also discover red flags.

7. Job Performance Questions

When performing a professional reference check, it’s important to ask previous employers or former supervisors about your candidate’s work. Their job performance at their previous position is a strong indicator of how they’ll perform at your business.

It can also provide valuable information about an individual’s job skills, interpersonal skills, productivity, and professionalism.

Job-performance questions can include:

  • How would you describe the candidate’s dependability?
  • What was the candidate’s best work?
  • Was the candidate good at working with others?
  • What kind of attitude does the candidate have toward work?
  •  Were they constantly late, or did they miss a lot of work?

8. Safety-related questions 

Employment reference checks can also protect your business and its employees from risk. Risks that can be avoided include:

  • Workplace sexual harassment
  • Workplace harassment or violence
  • Violence or sexual harassment against the customers of your business on 
  • Reputational damage

You should ask the candidate questions that can protect your busines such as ‘Do you have a criminal record?’. However under the Californian ban the box laws , this may be illegal to ask until after you’ve offered the candidate the position.

9. Advice-Based Questions

You should ask the referee for advice regarding the candidate as the final interview question. Through this question, they can provide you with information on how to manage or motivate the candidate. This information is helpful if you choose to hire the candidate.

Advised-based questions can include:

  • What is the best way to manage this candidate?
  • What do you think fuels the candidate? 
  • What kind of responsibilities/working styles do they like best?
  • What can I do to help the candidate reach their full potential?

The final question you should ask is, “Is there anything else you think I should know about the candidate?”. This will provide the referee with the opportunity to open up to you about past issues or red flags relating to the candidate. 

Alternatively, this question could allow the referee to provide further praise about the candidate. In either case, you’ll benefit from the referee’s answer.

Legal Considerations

Illegal grounds and discrimination

It is illegal to ask referees certain questions regarding a candidate. 

These include questions you ask to receive information regarding a candidate’s protected characteristics. Protected characteristics refer to personal traits that an individual has which can’t be used to discriminate against them.

Protected characteristics and you can’t ask regarding a candidate include the following:

  • Religion 
  • Marital status
  • Family status
  • Financial status
  • Unemployment status
  • Disability 
  • Gender 
  • Sexual orientation
  • Age
  • National Origin
  • Citizenship status
  • Health 
  • Background checks 
  • Weight and height
  • Race  

You can’t use information regarding a candidate’s protected characteristics you discover while conducting employment reference checks to influence your hiring decision or to discriminate against them.

You must avoid asking reference questions to receive information regarding a candidate’s protected characteristics or other information that’s protected by the laws of your state.


It is illegal to discriminate against a candidate on the basis of their age under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). Therefore, you must avoid asking a referee questions regarding a candidate’s age. 

National Origin or Race

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s illegal to ask referees questions in relation to a candidate’s race or nationality. 

Health and Disability Information 

It’s illegal to ask a referee whether a candidate has a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

Similarly, under federal law, you’re prevented from asking questions about a candidate’s health during a reference check. You can’t ask a referee for information regarding these topics if it doesn’t affect whether they’ll be able to meet a job requirement. 

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) makes it unlawful for you to discriminate against a candidate on the basis of their health. Therefore you can’t ask a referee health-related questions regarding the candidate. 

For example, you can’t ask a referee whether the candidate will require time away from work due to health problems. 

Weight and Height 

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful to ask referees about a candidate’s weight or height, and you can’t use this information to decide whether a candidate is suitable for the position. 

Criminal Record

It’s illegal to ask a referee questions regarding a candidate’s criminal record or whether a candidate has a criminal record.

Salary and Credit History

It’s illegal to ask a referee questions regarding a candidate’s credit or salary history, as employers can use this information to discriminate against a candidate on the basis of their financial status. 

Furthermore, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 states that it’s illegal for employers to pay female employees less money for the same job than their male colleagues. 

Therefore asking a referee for the candidate’s latest salary or the salary they’re expecting to receive can suggest that you’re selecting the salary you will offer them based on this financial information. 

It’s only legal to ask a referee for a candidate’s credit history if it’s a necessary requirement of the job. Asking a referee this question for other purposes can result in a failure to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

Family and Marital Status

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, asking questions regarding a candidate’s family or marital status, including whether they have children or intend to have children, during employment reference checks is illegal. 

For example, you can’t use information regarding whether a candidate plans to start a family or has family commitments to discriminate against them.

If you would like to discover whether the candidate will be able to work the required hours or if they’ll require time off, you should ask questions that won’t land you in legal trouble, such as questions that relate to how many hours the position requires and other time-based questions.

Sex and Sexual orientation

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it’s illegal for you to ask a referee questions regarding the sexual orientation or sex of a candidate and to refuse to hire a candidate on this basis.

Other characteristics

It is also illegal to ask a referee about other characteristics that aren’t related to the requirements of the position or whether the candidate will be able to handle the responsibilities of the position.

No reference policy

Referees may not be legally allowed to provide answers to some of your questions as some companies have a ‘no reference’ policy. These policies are used by companies to reduce the likelihood of facing a defamation or discrimination claim.

Since the EEOC recovered $484 million for discrimination victims in 2017, no reference policies have become increasingly common.

The risk of a defamation or discrimination claim may exceed the advantage of giving a detailed reference regarding a previous employee.

Federal law 

Federal laws in relation to employment reference checks primarily relate to defamation and discrimination.

An illegal discriminatory reference refers to when an employer provides refuses to provide or provides a reference that’s false or negative on the basis of the following factors relating to a candidate:

  • Sexual orientation
  • Disability 
  • Color 
  • Age 
  • Sex 
  • Genetic information
  • Pregnancy 
  • National origin 
  • Gender identity
  • Race 
  • Religion 

State Law

The laws regulating the information that can be provided during employment reference checks can differ from state to state.

For example, in Colorado, you’re allowed to ask a referee questions regarding a candidate’s job performance, why they were terminated, knowledge, qualifications, or skills. Contrastingly in Illinois, you’re restricted to asking a referee questions regarding the candidate’s job performance.

Therefore before you begin to conduct employment reference checks, you should determine which laws govern the process in your state and which questions you’re allowed to ask a referee.

Discriminatory referees

It’s important to note during the employment reference check process that referees can also be discriminatory. Therefore, you should receive references from multiple referees in order to prevent a potentially discriminatory reference from being accepted.

You should promptly end a conversation with a referee if they’re clearly putting forward opinions that could be considered discriminatory.

Red flags in reference checks

  1. If the referee provides negative feedback about the candidate
  2. If the candidate requests that you don’t contact a specific reference. That could be a sign that they have something to hide or that they’ve provided you with a fake reference 
  3. If the referee only provides factual information regarding the candidate, such as the candidate’s job title, they could be avoiding discussing the candidate’s inadequate work performance
  4. If there are inconsistencies between the information provided by the candidate and the referee
  5. If the reference is overly positive, this could be a sign that the referee is being dishonest about the candidate. This is because all candidates have weaknesses alongside their strengths

Frequently Asked Questions( FAQs)

Who can you contact for a reference check?

You can contact all referees a candidate has listed, including their former supervisors, employers, colleagues, teachers, and university lecturers.

What’s the difference between a background check and a reference check?

Despite their similarities, the focus of these checks slightly differ. 

Reference checks are used to gain information about a candidate’s working abilities through the references they’ve provided. 

In contrast, background checks are used to verify a candidate’s credentials and can include reviewing a candidate’s criminal record, credit history, and past work history.

Do you need permission to perform a reference check?

It is common practice to notify a candidate that you will be checking their references. 

However, hiring managers in most states don’t have to ask a candidate for permission to check their references.

Can you contact someone the candidate didn’t list?

You can ask for references from individuals that weren’t listed, including a candidate’s former managers, co-workers, or anyone else you believe can provide a useful reference.

When is the best time to perform a reference check?

Although references are typically checked in the final stages of a hiring process, this isn’t always the best case. You can check references in the early stages of the hiring process to avoid wasting time and to determine whether it’s worthwhile to continue interviewing the candidate. 

Employment reference checks are most commonly conducted at these two times:

  1. Before making a job offer to the candidate. This check can help you determine whether the candidate is suitable for the position. 
  2. After making a job offer to the candidate. This check can help you determine the best method to use for the new employee’s onboarding process. This is crucial as successful onboarding procedures lead to high rates of employee retention.

What are the different ways you can check a candidate’s references?

You can check references through phone calls or using referencing technology, including automated referencing applications.

Why should you check your candidate’s references?

Nowadays, candidates possess greater interview skills. Therefore, it’s difficult to determine whether candidates are suitable for the job on the basis of interviews alone. Similarly, applicants also frequently provide false information in their cover letters. 

Which topics to avoid during employment reference checks?

You should avoid asking questions regarding discriminatory topics. These include:

  • Disability
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation 
  • Marital status
  • Family status

There are laws that regulate which questions hiring managers can ask during reference checks in specific states. 

What to do if the candidate is currently employed?

You should avoid contacting your candidate’s current employer if their employer is unaware that the candidate intends to leave. This is to avoid placing the candidate in an awkward situation at their existing job. Therefore if applicable, you should receive a reference from an alternate referee or a different previous employer.


When hiring a new employee, employment reference checks have a significant impact on your hiring decision. For your business to grow, you need to hire the best candidates. By asking the candidate’s referees the questions outlined in this article, you’ll achieve this. 

Now that you know which questions you can legally ask during reference checks, you can adjust the questions you intend to ask based on these legal restrictions. This will help you save time by avoiding asking questions that referees can’t answer and avoid the risk of breaching anti-discrimination laws. .

After you’ve completed your employment reference checks for a candidate and decide to hire them you can use our employment agreement to start the hiring process.

Get your Full Time Employment Agreement legal document for free.

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