Although studies show that 87% of employers use some type of background or reference checking process during the hiring stages, many still underestimate the full value of this powerful recruitment tool. Reference checking is the process of questioning an applicant’s current and former co-workers and managers to learn more about the candidate’s skills, aptitudes and experiences.

The reality is that when done right, reference checks can enable your company to better evaluate the applicant’s workplace skills and determine potential culture fit. It also can help your organization determine whether the candidate is right for the role and the company.


how to conduct effective reference checks.

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It's important to realize, however, that how you conduct the reference checking process can impact its value. For instance, a reference check conducted quickly and without a clear plan in place is likely to provide limited results. On the other hand, strategic reference checking can provide the insights necessary to make sound hiring decisions.

For these reasons, it’s critical to develop a comprehensive reference checking process that’s designed to obtain the information you need. Keep reading to learn how to develop a process that works for your company.

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it’s critical to develop a comprehensive reference checking process that’s designed to obtain the information you need.

steps for conducting reference checks

When creating a comprehensive reference checking process, there are a few best practices to keep in mind, such as:

prepare in advance

You never want to conduct a reference check unprepared. This practice can lead to confusing or irrelevant feedback as well as possible compliance issues. Instead, take some time to prepare before you call or email any reference. 

Start by seeking input from the people within your organization involved in interviewing the candidate. Ask them to point out any areas pertaining to the applicant they want more information about or any concerns they have about the candidate or the candidate’s skill set.

Next, take some time to read over the candidate’s resume, application, cover letter, interview notes and other pertinent information to refresh your memory. You also want to determine the purpose of the reference check. Is your main objective to verify the candidate’s skills, determine job fit or ensure there are no underlying issues with the applicant? Understanding your main objective allows you to focus on asking questions that can provide the results you need.

notify candidates

Be sure to let the candidate know that you are going to be conducting reference checks. You also should check with your legal and data privacy teams to determine if explicit consent from each candidate is required before reaching out to any reference. Also, make sure you understand what candidate information you can and cannot collect and how to manage this data afterwards.


how to conduct effective reference checks.

download the guide
Smiling woman sitting at a table with coffee, smiling at someone.
Smiling woman sitting at a table with coffee, smiling at someone.

stick with open-ended questions

Open-ended questions work best for the reference checking process because they give the reference more leeway to answer the questions. On the other hand, close-ended questions that require just a one-word or one-sentence answer are unlikely to provide the valuable insights you want. While some close-ended questions are ok, especially near the beginning and end of the conversation, most of your questions should give the reference the ability to provide as much information as they see fit.

For example:

  • What were the main responsibilities of the candidate in their position?
  • How did the candidate handle conflict at work?
  • What would you say are the candidate's greatest strengths and weaknesses?

don’t make assumptions

When conducting a reference check, you should always stick to facts by asking the reference to back up opinions with facts. For example, if the reference states that they feel the applicant would be a good fit for the role, follow that answer through with a secondary question asking what specific skills would make the candidate a good fit.

Additionally, don’t read too much into the reference’s attitude or tone. Without knowing the reference personally, it’s impossible to determine if this is just the person’s natural tone, if they are simply having a bad or stressful day, or if their attitude has something to do with the candidate.

don’t rush the process

If you’re conducting the reference check by phone, be sure to set enough time aside to ask all the questions. The last thing you want to do is to rush the reference checking process.  If the references feel rushed, they could be reluctant to provide complete answers. In turn, these checks could fail to provide the insights you need. 

If, on the other hand, you’re using email to send references a form to complete, be sure to give them several days to finish and send out a friendly reminder, if necessary. Automated reference checking technology can speed up the process by allowing references to provide candidate feedback from any device and by automatically sending out reminders. However, you still want to give references ample time to complete this form. 

don’t interrupt the reference

Be mindful of not interrupting references while they’re talking. After all, you never want to prevent a reference from providing valuable information regarding the applicant. Instead, ask your question and then give the reference time to collect their thoughts and answer. However, it is ok to steer the reference back on topic if they stray too far away from the original question or if they start to divulge private information about the applicant that has nothing to do with the job. If you’re using online reference checking software, such as Relevate Reference, you don’t have to worry about this issue. Instead, references can take the time to complete the online questionnaire when it’s most convenient for them. 

look for red flags

There are a few red flags to look for when conducting reference checks, such as:

  • applicant didn’t notify the reference about the call.
  • reference can’t answer basic questions about the applicant.
  • basic work information, such as job title and duties, is not in alignment with the applicant’s resume.
  • reference states that they are not the right person to answer the questions.

If you’re conducting an online reference check, you may also be able to detect potential fraudulent references. For example, our Relevate Reference technology can alert you if references are using the same device through IP tracking. 

Any of these red flags may be a sign that the applicant embellished some of their skills and experiences or that the reference is less than credible.

automate the reference checking process

If you are still conducting reference checks manually, you may want to consider using online reference checking software instead. With this technology, you can send references a short online form that they can complete anytime, anywhere and from any device. This technology can also alert you to possible fraud issues. For example, if two references are using the same device to complete the questionnaire, our technology can detect this issue. Also, keep in mind that you can always conduct a followup call to obtain more information if necessary.  

Online reference check solutions take this tedious task out of your hands and automate the entire process. For example, with our Randstad Relevate Reference can streamline your entire reference checking process, gathering higher quality feedback in less time and in a secure and safe way. 

Learn more about building a strategic reference checking process by downloading our guide to reference checking today.

about the author
philipp vogel
philipp vogel

Philipp Vogel

district manager

Philipp Vogel started his career as a polymechanic EFZ. Various further training courses led him to strategic purchasing and most recently to Randstad. Philipp has been working at Randstad for 15 years and, as District Manager, leads the branches from Basel to St.Gallen so that they achieve their goals. In his role, Philipp appreciates the daily variety and the great responsibility. In his free time he does kickboxing and is an active Basel carnival participant.

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