Reference checking can help to substantiate or nullify facts and impressions that have been gathered at an interview. It may even bring new facts or experience to light, depending on the thoroughness of the reference check.
The person who conducted the original employment interview should also conduct the reference check since that individual is most familiar with the applicant's background. When calling a reference, identify yourself and explain your position and why you are calling about the applicant. Be sure to give the reference a thorough explanation of the position for which the applicant is being considered. The evaluation will be better if made in relation to a specific job. It is important to plan the questions you will ask all candidates' references for the same job. Also include specific questions that will help clarify any possible problems you perceive with each of the different candidates. You may use the Sample Reference Checking Form to help guide you through the reference checking process.
Pointers for Reference Check Telephone Calls
- Seek reference information from individuals with personal knowledge of the applicant’s work performance and behavior (the applicant’s former immediate supervisor). If applicant requests that some references not be checked, advise applicant that they may no longer be considered for the position.
- Treat personal references in the same manner as professional references.
- Use a pre-set list of questions or the Sample Reference Check form.
- Questions and discussion should focus on characteristics that are clearly job related (the range of characteristics can still be very broad but keep in mind how the characteristic being discussed is related to the person’s ability to do THIS job. Avoid questions that could be discriminatory such as marital status, medical condition, etc.
- Ask questions in such a way that it’s clear to the reference that the questions ARE job-related.
- Avoid asking questions that may be “perceived” as personal or NON job-related.
- Be as neutral as possible in your responses to comments given by the reference (avoid such comments as “that’s just what we need” or “that wouldn’t work here”).
- Listen carefully and ask follow-up questions especially if you’re not sure what the person’s comment means. Don’t assume positive or negative meanings without checking out your assumption.
- Keep the questions open-ended. Comments like: “Could you say a little more about that” leave lots of room for the reference to talk.
- Avoid yes/no questions.
- Let silence be okay. Give the reference time to think about his/her answer AND don’t take the person off the hook if s/he doesn’t answer right away. Hesitation MAY be a signal that the reference is uneasy with the question OR the reference may just need some time to think about the question and how the best answer.
- Ask for examples whenever possible – don’t let the reference generalize; press for supporting information for the generalization.
- Be sure to keep notes (these become part of the search file); notes should include name of the reference, date of the contact and brief summary of the reference’s comments/information.
Some Common Errors
Forming a favorable or unfavorable impression within the first few minutes
Tendency to rate a person high on all factors even though the person was
Opposite of the halo effect.
Inability to rate responses anywhere but in the middle.
Similar to Me
Tendency to rate higher those people who seem most like me.
North Dakota Truthful References Law
The 1997 North Dakota Legislature enacted law which grants immunity from civil lawsuits to employers who provide truthful employment references.
Found in North Dakota Century Code (NDCC) 34-02-18, the truthful references law reads:
1 - An employer who truthfully discloses date of employment, pay level, job description and duties, and wage history about a current or former employee to a prospective employer of the employee is immune from civil liability for disclosure and its consequences.
2 - An employer who discloses information about a current or former employee's job performance to a prospective employer of the employee is presumed to be acting in good faith. Unless lack of good faith is shown, the employer is immune from civil liability for the disclosure and its consequences.
The presumption of good faith may be rebutted by a preponderance of the evidence that the information disclosed was:
a. Knowingly false:
b. Disclosed with reckless disregard for the truth;
c. Deliberately misleading; or
d. Rendered with malicious purpose.
3 - The immunity provided by subsection two (2) does not apply if the information provided is in violation of a nondisclosure agreement, or was otherwise confidential according to applicable law.
Providing Employment References
- Ensure that only a supervisor or human resource professional with direct knowledge of the employee's performance provides the reference (as opposed to a co-worker, etc.)
- Ask if the prospective employer will send you a signed document releasing former employers from liability for providing employment references. This is no longer crucial under the 1997 law, but still nice to have if possible.
- Disclose only verifiable facts.
- Refrain from discussing a former employee's general character, personality, attitudinal traits (e.g. "lazy," "uncooperative," "unreliable," "disloyal," etc.), or private life.
- Document all statements and information given to the prospective employer.
Obtaining Employment References
- Contact references provided. If applicant requests that some references not be checked, advise applicant that they may no longer be considered.
- Seek reference information from individuals with personal knowledge of the applicant's work performance and behavior (the applicant's former immediate supervisor).
- Use a pre-set list of questions or a reference form.
- As always, avoid questions which could be discriminatory such as marital status, medical conditions, etc.
Reference Request Requirements
There is no law compelling an employer to provide a reference. As an institution covered by the open records law, however, certain records must be released if requested.
Personal references should be treated in much the same manner as professional references. Department heads may choose to communicate with their employees that only designated personnel can provide professional references on behalf of the department; and stress that if any other employees provide a reference, they must distinguish it as a personal reference.