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The Empuls Glossary

Glossary of Human Resources Management and Employee Benefit Terms

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Reference check acts as a background verification system which investigates important employment information such as job titles, places of employment, skills, qualifications, and education to ensure that the information the job candidate has provided is accurate.  

They can also help verify information provided on a candidate’s resume or in the interview process. For example: tasks and responsibilities previously handled, proficiency in certain skills, and the circumstances under which they left previous employment.

What is reference check?

A reference check is a part of the hiring process that involves contacting a job candidate’s previous employers, managers, coworkers, or teachers.

It is typically conducted near the end of the recruitment process and is used to gain insights about a specific candidate by requesting feedback from current and former co-workers. The feedback is typically acquired by asking the reference a variety of questions regarding the applicant, either through a phone call or email.

Listen, recognize, award, and retain your employees with our Employee engagement software  

Why are reference checks important for employers?

Reference checks are important for employers for several reasons:

1. Verification of information

Reference checks allow employers to verify the accuracy and truthfulness of information provided by candidates during the hiring process, including employment history, job titles, responsibilities, and achievements. This helps ensure that candidates have the necessary qualifications and experience for the position.

2. Assessment of candidate suitability

Reference checks provide valuable insights into a candidate's work ethic, performance, skills, strengths, weaknesses, and interpersonal abilities from the perspective of previous supervisors, colleagues, or clients. This information helps employers assess whether a candidate is a good fit for the role and the organization's culture.

3. Confirmation of professional reputation

Reference checks help confirm a candidate's professional reputation and credibility within their industry or field. Positive references from previous employers or colleagues can validate a candidate's qualifications and suitability for the position, while negative references may raise red flags and prompt further investigation.

4. Predictor of future performance

Past behavior is often a strong predictor of future performance. Reference checks provide insights into a candidate's past performance, achievements, and behavior in previous roles, which can help employers assess their potential for success in the new role.

5. Identification of red flags

Reference checks can help employers identify potential red flags or concerns about a candidate, such as performance issues, disciplinary actions, conflicts with colleagues, or ethical lapses. This information allows employers to make more informed hiring decisions and mitigate risks associated with hiring unsuitable candidates.

6. Legal compliance

Conducting reference checks can help employers demonstrate due diligence in their hiring process and mitigate legal risks associated with negligent hiring claims. By verifying candidates' qualifications and conducting thorough background checks, employers can minimize the likelihood of hiring individuals who pose a risk to the organization or its employees.

7. Confirmation of cultural fit

Reference checks provide insights into a candidate's compatibility with the organization's values, mission, and culture. Positive references from previous employers who can attest to a candidate's cultural fit can increase confidence in their ability to integrate successfully into the team and contribute to the organization's success.

What questions are typically asked during reference checks?

The questions typically asked during reference checks are:

  • How would you describe the candidate's work performance and productivity?
  • What are the candidate's key strengths and areas for improvement?
  • Can you provide examples of the candidate's accomplishments or contributions in their role?
  • How did the candidate handle challenging situations or conflicts in the workplace?
  • Was the candidate reliable and punctual in fulfilling their job duties?
  • Can you describe the candidate's level of professionalism and integrity?

How long do reference checks take?

Here are some factors that can influence the timeline of reference checks:

1. Availability of references

The time it takes to complete reference checks often depends on the availability and responsiveness of the references provided by the candidate. If references are readily available and respond promptly to inquiries, the process can be completed more quickly. However, delays may occur if references are difficult to reach or take longer to respond.

2. Number of references

The number of references required by the employer can impact the duration of reference checks. Some employers may request multiple references from different employers, supervisors, colleagues, or clients, which can extend the time needed to contact and gather feedback from each reference.

3. Reference verification process

The reference verification process may involve various steps, such as contacting references by phone or email, scheduling interviews or discussions, verifying employment dates and job titles, and conducting background checks. The complexity of these steps can influence the overall duration of reference checks.

4. Employer's internal processes

The timeline for reference checks may also be influenced by the employer's internal processes and procedures. Some employers may have streamlined systems in place for conducting reference checks, while others may require additional approvals or documentation, which can extend the process.

5. Candidate's consent and cooperation

Reference checks require the candidate's consent and cooperation to contact their references and gather information. Delays may occur if candidates are unresponsive or fail to provide accurate contact information for their references.

How to conduct a reference check effectively?

Here are steps to conduct a reference check effectively:  

1. Prepare in advance

  • Review the candidate's resume, application materials, and interview notes to identify areas of focus for the reference check.
  • Determine which references you will contact (e.g., previous supervisors, colleagues, clients) and obtain contact information.
  • Familiarize yourself with the company's policies and procedures for conducting reference checks.

2. Obtain consent

  • Obtain the candidate's consent to contact their references and gather information about their employment history and performance.
  • Clearly communicate the purpose of the reference check and assure the candidate that their feedback will be kept confidential.

3. Establish communication

  • Contact the references via phone or email to schedule a convenient time for the reference check.
  • Introduce yourself and your role within the organization.  
  • Explain the purpose of the reference check.

4. Ask open-ended questions

  • Ask open-ended questions that allow the reference to provide detailed, specific feedback about the candidate's skills, performance, and suitability for the position.
  • Focus on areas such as the candidate's job responsibilities, strengths, areas for improvement, work ethic, communication skills, and ability to work in a team.

5. Listen actively

  • Listen carefully to the reference's responses and take notes to capture key information and insights.
  • Pay attention to tone of voice, hesitations, and non-verbal cues that may indicate areas of concern or enthusiasm about the candidate.

6. Probe for details

  • Ask follow-up questions to clarify any ambiguous or unclear responses and gather additional information about specific examples or situations.
  • Probe for details about the candidate's accomplishments, challenges faced, and how they handled difficult situations.

7. Respect confidentiality

  • Respect the confidentiality of the reference's feedback and assure them that their responses will be kept confidential.
  • Avoid sharing sensitive information about the candidate or the reference with unauthorized individuals.

8. Document feedback

  • Document the reference's feedback accurately and objectively, noting any strengths, areas for improvement, or concerns raised during the conversation.
  • Keep detailed records of the reference check for reference and documentation purposes.

9. Provide feedback to hiring team

  • Share the findings of the reference check with the hiring team or decision-makers involved in the hiring process.
  • Discuss any insights or observations gleaned from the reference check and how they may impact the candidate's candidacy or suitability for the position.

10. Follow up

  • Follow up with the candidate to provide feedback on the reference check and discuss any concerns or areas for further discussion.
  • Maintain open communication with the candidate throughout the hiring process and address any questions or concerns they may have.

How reliable are reference checks in verifying a candidate’s background?

Here are some factors to consider regarding the reliability of reference checks:

  • Dependence on references' cooperation: The reliability of reference checks depends on the willingness and cooperation of the references contacted. If references are reluctant to provide feedback or are unavailable for contact, it can limit the effectiveness of the reference check process.
  • Subjectivity of feedback: Reference checks rely on subjective feedback provided by individuals who have worked with the candidate in the past. The perception of a candidate's performance and suitability for a position may vary among different references based on their personal experiences and perspectives.
  • Potential bias or partiality: References may have biases or personal relationships with the candidate that can influence their feedback. Positive references provided by friends, family members, or close colleagues may lack objectivity, while negative references may be influenced by personal conflicts or grudges.
  • Limited scope of information: Reference checks typically focus on gathering information about a candidate's work history, performance, and qualifications. However, they may not provide a comprehensive understanding of the candidate's skills, abilities, or potential for success in a new role.
  • Legal and privacy considerations: Employers must adhere to legal and privacy regulations when conducting reference checks, which may limit the types of information that can be obtained from references. References may be hesitant to provide candid feedback due to concerns about legal liability or privacy violations.
  • Timing and relevance: The reliability of reference checks can be influenced by the timing of the reference check relative to the candidate's employment history. References who worked with the candidate more recently may provide more relevant and accurate feedback than those who worked with them in the distant past.
  • Context and circumstances: The reliability of reference checks may be affected by the context and circumstances surrounding the candidate's previous employment, including the nature of their role, the organizational culture, and the specific challenges or successes they experienced in their previous positions.

Employee pulse surveys:

These are short surveys that can be sent frequently to check what your employees think about an issue quickly. The survey comprises fewer questions (not more than 10) to get the information quickly. These can be administered at regular intervals (monthly/weekly/quarterly).

One-on-one meetings:

Having periodic, hour-long meetings for an informal chat with every team member is an excellent way to get a true sense of what’s happening with them. Since it is a safe and private conversation, it helps you get better details about an issue.


eNPS (employee Net Promoter score) is one of the simplest yet effective ways to assess your employee's opinion of your company. It includes one intriguing question that gauges loyalty. An example of eNPS questions include: How likely are you to recommend our company to others? Employees respond to the eNPS survey on a scale of 1-10, where 10 denotes they are ‘highly likely’ to recommend the company and 1 signifies they are ‘highly unlikely’ to recommend it.

Based on the responses, employees can be placed in three different categories:

  • Promoters
    Employees who have responded positively or agreed.
  • Detractors
    Employees who have reacted negatively or disagreed.
  • Passives
    Employees who have stayed neutral with their responses.

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