The complete guide to employment reference checks

zinc logo icon
Zinc Team
June 28, 2019
Updated on:

Ultimate guide to employment reference checks

Accurate candidate screening is vital for HR professionals to build the strongest team for a company. When conducting an employment reference check, it's crucial to take a comprehensive approach. Quality interviews, proper procedures, and detailed notes are all essential parts of a successful process that uncovers all you need to know about the candidate.

Reference checks ensure you invite the right individuals into your organisation while protecting yourself from potential risks. We have created the ultimate guide on running thorough reference checks to maximise accuracy and efficiency in employee screenings and ensure informed and reliable hiring decisions. From dos and don'ts to expert advice for precise results, we cover all the details, empowering you to take significant steps in minimising liabilities and quickly and effectively onboarding your dream team. Follow our best practices and insights to gain an honest account of any new employee before they join your team.

Uk rules on reference checks

As an employer, getting references from previous employers or professionals can provide valuable insights into a candidate's work history, performance, and character, enabling you to make more informed hiring decisions. These references offer a glimpse into the individual's past experiences, work ethic, and interpersonal skills, helping you gauge their suitability for the role.

However, it's important to note that employers are not always obligated to give a work reference unless there is a written agreement or it is a regulated industry. Despite this, when a reference is supplied, it becomes imperative for employers to adhere to the principles of fairness and accuracy. In certain regulated industries, providing accurate references is not just good practice but a legal obligation.

While brief references with basic information such as job titles and employment dates are acceptable, employers should be cautious not to provide vague or misleading information. Additional details included in the reference should be objective, specific, and well-documented, clearly and accurately portraying the individual's performance and character.

When requesting references, employers should provide ample opportunities for referees to elaborate on their assessment of the candidate. Encouraging referees to provide concrete examples and documentation will add depth and credibility to the reference, helping to create a more comprehensive understanding of the candidate's abilities.

It is crucial to remember that candidates have rights in the reference process. If they discover that an unfair or inaccurate reference misled them, they may have grounds to claim damages. Moreover, it is unlawful for an employer to dismiss someone solely in retaliation for the candidate's request to provide their reference.

Therefore, as an employer, it is essential to balance meeting legal duties and protecting the company's interests. By providing evidence-based, balanced references, employers can contribute to fair and transparent hiring practices, fostering a trustworthy and positive working environment for all parties involved.

Data privacy and discrimination in referencing

Knowing how to handle references is key to protecting the privacy and rights of both former employees and prospective hires. This involves compliance with data protection regulations such as the dpa and gdpr, which outline strict guidelines for the handling of personal data. References containing sensitive personal information must be handled carefully, and employers should obtain the candidate's consent before seeking references. Additionally, it's important to remember the equality act to avoid discrimination during the hiring process. By staying informed and up-to-date on these regulations, employers can ensure they operate within legal boundaries while finding the most qualified candidates.

Reference checks

As an employer, hiring new talent is critical for the success and growth of the organisation. Gathering references for potential candidates is an integral part of this process, allowing employers to gain valuable insights into a candidate's qualifications, work ethic, and overall suitability for the position. In this section, we will explore the different types of references employers commonly seek when evaluating potential candidates.

Professional references

former employers/supervisors:

contacting a candidate's former employers or supervisors is essential in evaluating their professional background. Speaking with individuals who have directly managed the candidate provides valuable information about their job performance, reliability, and ability to meet deadlines. Former employers can shed light on the candidate's strengths, areas of improvement, and potential for growth within the organisation.

Colleagues and peers:

references from colleagues and peers give employers a glimpse into how the candidate interacts with others in a team environment. Feedback from coworkers can provide insights into the candidate's teamwork skills, communication style, and ability to collaborate effectively on projects. Understanding how candidates interact with their peers is crucial, as it can impact overall team dynamics and productivity.

Clients and customers (if applicable):

For candidates with direct customer or client interactions, seeking references from satisfied clients can be highly informative. Feedback from customers can highlight the candidate's customer service skills, problem-solving abilities, and overall commitment to client satisfaction. This information is especially valuable for roles that require strong customer relations or sales expertise.

Academic references (for recent graduates)

For recent graduates with limited work experience, academic references play a pivotal role in assessing their potential for success in a professional setting. Contacting professors, academic advisors, or mentors provides employers with insights into the candidate's academic achievements, learning approach, and growth potential. Academic references can also reveal the candidate's research abilities, critical thinking skills, and dedication to their chosen field.

Character references (for individuals with limited work experience)

In cases where candidates have limited work experience, character references offer employers a broader understanding of the candidate's personal qualities and values. Speaking with individuals who know the candidate outside of a professional context, such as mentors or community leaders, can provide valuable information about their integrity, reliability, and ethical standards. This information helps employers assess how well the candidate's character aligns with the organisation's values and culture.

Collecting references: best practices

When reaching out to references, employers should approach the process with professionalism and respect. Here are some best practices:

  • seek permission: always request the candidate's permission to contact their references, and ensure they are aware of the specific job opportunity they are being considered for.
  • Prepare relevant questions: have a set of relevant and structured questions to gather specific information about the candidate's skills, work style, and character.
  • Maintain confidentiality: respect the privacy of both the candidate and the references, and keep all information obtained confidential.

What to include in reference checks

A thorough reference check can provide valuable insights into a candidate's abilities, work ethic, and overall suitability for the job. To ensure you gather the necessary information, consider including the following elements in your reference check process

Standard information to request

1. Candidate's full name and job title

2. Relationship with the referee (how they know the candidate)

3. Date and duration of the working relationship

4. Specific job responsibilities and duties

Additional questions to uncover valuable insights

1. Candidate's strengths and weaknesses

2. Reliability, punctuality, and attendance

3. Ability to work in a team and communication skills

4. Problem-solving and adaptability

5. Overall job performance and achievements

c. Clarifying ambiguous or vague references

 Standard information to request

Candidate's full name and job title:

begin by confirming the candidate's full name and the specific job title they have applied for. This ensures that the reference check pertains to the right individual and role.

Relationship with the referee (how they know the candidate):

ask the referee to specify their relationship with the candidate and how they know them. This information helps gauge the depth and relevance of the reference's insights.

Date and duration of the working relationship:

Request the start and end dates of the working relationship between the referee and the candidate. Understanding the duration of their association provides context for evaluating the reference's familiarity with the candidate's performance.

Specific job responsibilities and duties:

Inquire about the candidate's specific job responsibilities and duties during their tenure with the referee's organisation. Understanding the scope of the candidate's past role aids in assessing their suitability for the prospective position.

 Additional questions to uncover valuable insights

Candidate's strengths and weaknesses:

ask the referee to identify the candidate's key strengths and weaknesses. Understanding these attributes helps determine how the candidate's skills align with the job requirements and potential areas for growth.

Reliability, punctuality, and attendance:

Inquire about the candidate's track record of reliability, punctuality, and attendance. Information on these aspects can provide valuable insights into the candidate's commitment and professionalism.

Ability to work in a team and communication skills:

Assess the candidate's ability to collaborate within a team and their communication skills. Understanding how well the candidate interacts with colleagues is crucial for predicting their future performance in a team-oriented work environment.

Problem-solving and adaptability:

Request information about the candidate's problem-solving abilities and adaptability. Knowing how well a candidate handles challenges and adapts to new situations can indicate their potential to thrive in dynamic work environments.

Overall job performance and achievements:

ask the referee to provide an overall evaluation of the candidate's job performance and any notable achievements during their tenure. This insight offers a comprehensive view of the candidate's past contributions and accomplishments.

 Clarifying ambiguous or vague references:

In cases where references provide ambiguous or vague feedback, make an effort to seek clarification. Politely ask the referee to elaborate on certain points to gain a deeper understanding of the candidate's performance and abilities.

By incorporating these elements into your reference check process, you can gather well-rounded and valuable insights on potential employees. Remember to conduct reference checks with professionalism and confidentiality, ensuring that the information collected is used solely for making informed hiring decisions.

How to make reference checks useful

Reference checks are an indispensable part of the hiring process, providing crucial information to help employers make well-informed decisions about potential employees. To ensure that reference checks are useful and yield meaningful insights, consider implementing the following strategies:

prepare a consistent set of questions for all references:

creating a standardised set of questions to ask all referees is essential. These questions should cover various aspects of the candidate's abilities and work performance, such as strengths, weaknesses, job responsibilities, communication skills, problem-solving abilities, teamwork, and achievements. Consistency in the questioning process allows for fair and objective evaluations, enabling employers to compare candidates more effectively.

Actively listen and ask follow-up questions:

during reference check conversations, actively listen to the referees' responses and take detailed notes. Engage in a two-way dialogue, and if needed, ask follow-up questions to delve deeper into specific aspects of the candidate's performance. Actively listening and seeking clarification helps in gaining more comprehensive insights into the candidate's suitability for the role.

Validate information with multiple references:

Whenever possible, gather feedback from multiple references for each candidate. Different referees may have varying perspectives based on their interactions with the candidate. By cross-referencing information from various sources, employers can validate the accuracy of the feedback and obtain a more well-rounded assessment of the candidate's abilities.

Consider the context of the referee's comments:

It's crucial to consider the context in which the candidate worked with each referee. Factors like the industry, company culture, and the referee's managerial style can influence the comments provided. Understanding the context helps interpret the feedback more accurately and in the right perspective.

Compare reference feedback with other hiring criteria:

The insights gained from reference checks should be integrated into the overall evaluation of the candidate. Compare the feedback from references with other hiring criteria, such as the candidate's resume, performance during interviews, and any skills assessments conducted. A holistic evaluation provides a clearer understanding of the candidate's potential fit for the role.

Respect confidentiality and maintain professionalism:

employers must handle reference check information with the utmost confidentiality. Referees may share sensitive details about the candidate, and it's crucial to respect their trust and privacy. Avoid discussing the reference check results with unauthorised personnel and only use the information for making hiring decisions.

Use reference checks as part of a comprehensive process:

Reference checks are valuable but should be just one component of a broader hiring process. Combining reference checks with interviews, skills assessments, and cultural fit evaluations ensures a more comprehensive understanding of the candidate's overall suitability for the position.

Avoiding common pitfalls in reference checks

unconscious bias awareness: employers must be aware of the presence of unconscious bias during reference checks. Unconscious biases can lead to unfair judgments based on factors like race, gender, age, or personal preferences. To counteract this, interviewers should undergo training to recognise and mitigate such biases, ensuring a fair and equitable evaluation of all candidates.

Treating all candidates equally: it is crucial to treat all candidates equally during the reference check process. Each candidate should be evaluated based on the same set of standardised questions, ensuring that no individual receives preferential treatment. This approach promotes fairness and allows candidates to be assessed solely on their qualifications and merits.

During reference checks, employers must be attentive to any red flags or discrepancies in the feedback received. If there are conflicting accounts or concerning remarks from multiple references, it's crucial to investigate further and seek clarification from additional sources, if possible. Ignoring red flags may lead to hiring decisions that do not align with the organisation's best interests.

Employers should take a holistic approach to the reference check process, combining written references with other evaluation methods and considering potential biases that may influence decision-making. By actively addressing these concerns, employers can enhance the accuracy and fairness of their reference checks and ultimately make more informed hiring decisions.

Reference checks and the interview process

Timing: when to conduct reference checks

Reference checks are best conducted closer to the end of the interview process, once the top candidate(s) have been identified. This timing allows for initial screening and interviews to take place, ensuring that only the most promising candidates proceed to the reference check stage. Conducting reference checks at this point saves time and resources, focusing efforts on candidates who are most likely to be offered the position.

Balancing reference check results with other evaluation methods

While reference checks provide valuable insights, it is crucial to view them as part of a comprehensive evaluation process. Interview performance, skills assessments, and the candidate's experience should also play a significant role in the final decision. Combining these various assessment methods provides a more well-rounded and accurate 

Understanding of the candidate's suitability for the role.

Handling negative references: resolving discrepancies and concerns

If a reference raises concerns or provides negative feedback about a candidate, it is essential to approach the issue with a fair and open mindset. First, carefully consider the context of the reference's feedback and assess its credibility. If there are discrepancies between the reference check and other evaluation methods, discuss them with the candidate to gain their perspective. This open dialogue allows the candidate to address any misunderstandings or clarify the situation.

In cases where negative claims seem unsupported or exaggerated, it may be necessary to verify the accuracy of the reference's statements by seeking additional input from other referees or colleagues. Ultimately, reaching a well-informed decision requires a balanced assessment of all available information.

Informing candidates about reference checks

 Transparent communication about the process

During the interview process, it is essential to inform candidates that reference checks will be conducted as a standard step for those who progress to becoming finalists for the role. Being transparent about this aspect of the evaluation process sets appropriate expectations and reinforces the organisation's commitment to a thorough selection process.

 Addressing negative references with transparency

If negative feedback is received during the reference check, it is essential to communicate this with the candidate openly and honestly. Provide context and specific details about the concerns raised so that the candidate can understand the issues and respond candidly. Transparency in sharing feedback enables the candidate to address the concerns and offer their perspective, helping the employer make a fair and thoughtful final decision.

By integrating these practices into the reference check process, employers can effectively leverage this evaluation tool while maintaining fairness and professionalism throughout the hiring process. Open communication with candidates fosters trust and demonstrates the organisation's commitment to making informed decisions based on a comprehensive assessment of each candidate's qualifications and fit for the role.

Global instant verification reference checks

Discover a better way for reliable automated background checks