References make a difference

Protect your firm with due diligence

You are ready to make an employment offer to the candidate you believe is perfect for the marketing position you have been struggling to fill. Before you make the offer, someone says, “Shouldn’t we check his references?” How would you answer this question?

When I work with clients I inquire whether they conduct reference checks when hiring new employees. I typically get one of three answers:

1. Yes, but not consistently.

2. No. I go with my gut instincts.

3. No. Employers refuse to provide more than dates of employment, salary history and job title so why bother?

While there is no legal requirement that an employer check a candidate’s employment references, it is considered a best practice, and I strongly encourage our clients to perform a reference check for each new hire. These are the primary reasons:

• Having more information about the candidate will allow you to make a better informed hiring decision. You may obtain information about the candidate that could change your mind about extending an offer. If this is the case, consider the time and money you saved by not making an employment offer to that candidate.

• Reduced liability exposure. In employment attorney Barry Kellman’s article, “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You,” he cites the following example: “Consider a situation where an employee engages in violent conduct at your workplace and is later found to have engaged in similar conduct at a previous job. You will be in a far better position to defend against claims of “negligent hiring” if you at least attempted to obtain background information from the prior employer, even if your attempt failed.”

Now that you understand the primary reasons you need to conduct reference checks when hiring new employees, here are some additional tips:

• Ask the candidate to first notify those people he/she listed as references. This way the person will be more likely to speak with you when you call.

• Obtain approval from the candidate before contacting references. There have been times when a reference is contacted only to find out the employee is still working there and the employer was unaware the employee was planning an exit. This is an awkward situation that can easily be avoided by a quick approval by the candidate about which references to contact.

Bear in mind that should a candidate ask you not to contact a former employer, you should ask them why. This may be a red flag, especially if the candidate is no longer employed there. 

• Talk with the candidate’s direct supervisor whenever possible. Having had direct contact with the employee, they can provide the most relevant information about their work habits, skills, etc.

• If you are unable to reach the candidate’s direct supervisor, the next best option is contacting their co-workers or indirect supervisor with some knowledge of their work.

• Obtain a written release from the candidate authorizing you to conduct the reference check. Sometimes providing this to the person you contact for a reference can aid in their willingness to speak with you.

• Develop a reference check format that includes standard questions and include some questions tailored to the job 

• Include additional questions that speak to “fit,” such as questions around your company’s core values. 

• Keep reference check questions relevant to the job, meaning stay away from questions that could be perceived as discriminatory. An example of this might be, “I know the candidate has small children, did she have issues with daycare when working for you?”

• In order to save time, don’t check references until you are ready to make an offer. You have two options

• Notify the candidate that you plan to check references before extending the employment offer.

• Extend the employment offer in writing but include language that the offer is contingent on the successful outcome of the employment references. 

• Retain a copy of the reference check once complete.

References are a critical step in the hiring process, not only to gain a more complete picture of the candidate you are about to hire but also to help reduce some risk to your business. 

Delise West, president and founder of Human Resource Partners, with offices in Concord and Dover, can be reached at 603-749-8989 or through

Categories: Business Advice