How and When Does an Employer Check Your References?

The references you present may be contacted about your qualifications, employment history, and the skills that qualify you for the job position you’re applying.

So, how and when does an employer check your references?

We asked experts to provide some helpful insights.

Table of Contents

Timothy G. Wiedman, D.B.A., PHR Emeritus

Timothy G. Wiedman

Retired Associate Prof. of Management & Human Resources, Doane University

Checking all references is always a standard part of the selection process

While I ended my career teaching courses in human resource management, I initially spent 13 years in the business world and hired hundreds of people after conducting thousands of interviews. And given that a high percentage of applications and resumes contained inaccuracies (including “inflated” job information), checking all references was a standard part of the selection process.

However, most successful companies with well-trained HR staffers have developed strict rules governing disclosure of information about current or former employees. Nobody wants to risk facing a defamation lawsuit or face a hearing in front of an Administrative Judge at the EEOC. So if supervisors are following company policy to the letter, very limited information (negative or otherwise) will generally be disclosed.

I must admit, however, that while contacting references as a member of search committees in the academic world, I have been told things that should never have been revealed, sometimes things that I didn’t even ask about! So while it might occasionally occur, in my experience, anyway, getting really useful “inside” information probably doesn’t happen all that often.

And upon receiving any sort of negative information, one should always consider whether the source had an axe to grind (and thus, wonder if the information really can be trusted). So making hiring decisions based largely on (possibly inaccurate) negative information is probably unwise for multiple reasons.

On the other hand, who can say whether seemingly “good” information that goes beyond what a company normally reveals is accurate either? I’ve run into “bogus” positive references more than once!

So while checking references is necessary to verify employment dates (and possibly job duties), any additional information received should be “taken with a grain of salt!”

Eric Mochnacz, SHRM-SCP

Eric Mochnacz

Human Resources Consultant, Red Clover HR

As with all things related to how we work, the philosophy towards references in the recruitment process is evolving.

References, ultimately, is a way for a prospective employer to learn more about the candidate they just interviewed. But, with potential legal implications, references may end up being a thing of the past.

Theoretically, someone on the job hunt wouldn’t list someone who would serve as a negative reference, but there have been situations where individuals have missed out on job offers because of negative references.

But, there are legal precedents where individuals have sued their reference for providing a less than stellar review to future potential employers. So, more and more, companies are proceeding with immense caution, only offering to confirm if someone worked at the location and the dates they were employed.

When it comes to references and the timing, the employer needs to answer the question “Why are we checking references?” If it’s just because “It’s what we’ve always done”, then maybe consider if reference checks still have a place in your recruiting process.

The most common “place” for reference checks is after the in-person interview

This traditionally is to confirm everything the candidate has said throughout the process is true. An offer letter may already be written and the employer wants to do a final gut check before activating the offer process in earnest.

There also has been a trend recently where I’ve received reference requests upon someone’s application. So, I’ve been asked to provide input on a candidate before they’ve even had a chance to speak with the potential employer.

I’ve always felt the resume speaks to a candidate’s qualifications for initial triage, and I don’t believe references should have a responsibility to impact someone’s chances that early in the process.

My recommendation is to understand the “why” behind your reference check, and if you can’t identify the reason for it, consider eliminating reference checks altogether.

If you have a solid interview process based in theory that truly gives you the information you want about a candidate, you may not need reference checks.

With the prevalence of LinkedIn, a candidate’s job information is readily available. Job hunters are also savvy enough to only list references who will say amazing things about them, so is there any added value to reference checks?! Probably not.

Michelle Merritt

Michelle Merritt

Business Coach | Resume Writer | Executive Partner, Merrfeld Career Management

References are a very common question among our clients. They’re often surprised that employers do indeed check their references, especially when interviewing aspiring professionals and executives.

The surprise likely comes from the belief that employers are in desperate need of people so they’ll take anyone without checking references. This may be true in entry-level positions but every hiring manager and or professional recruiter we know checks references.

Many recruiters will check references before sending the candidate to the hiring manager for the interview

When an employer checks references vary widely, especially if a recruiter is involved. This prevents any last-minute surprises as the offer phase approaches.

Many successful external/contract recruiters will call on references as part of the intake process before sending their candidate to any potential employers. This not only ensures the candidate is who they claim to be but may also broaden the recruiter’s network within a specific industry or vertical.

Reference checks are most often made by email or phone, but the phone is preferable as more can be gleaned from a conversation than an email. It also allows the hiring manager/recruiter to easily answer follow up questions based on the references answers.

We advise clients to have one or two references from three key categories: someone you’ve reported to, a peer, and someone who has reported to you. The references can be people you’ve worked with daily, people you’ve worked closely with on a project or people you’ve worked with within a matrix model.

All should be from the last ten years of your professional career. The goal is to showcase you as a well-rounded professional and provide the hiring manager with a sense of how you will fit into their culture.

By preparing this list of references in advance, hiring managers will know you’re serious about your search and your reputation.

Ronee Wagener, SPHR, MBA, CTACC

Ronee Wagener

Strategic Coach and Business Consultant | Owner, Coaching and Consulting by Ronee, LLC

I have always conducted references once we have identified the candidate we are interested in offering the position to

My goal is to talk to three professional references. By far the majority of my references have been conducted by visiting with the references on the phone. However, on a few occasions when the reference is overseas, I have asked questions and received responses through email.

Most of my questions focus on the applicant’s attitude, ability to get along with others, culture fit for the organization, management style if this is a leadership position and things along those lines.

Depending on the job I’m conducting references for, I may ask questions more related to the applicant’s knowledge, skills, and abilities directly related to the job.

Related: 20+ Signs Your Job Interview Went Well

Randi Braun

Randi Braun

Career Coach & Consultant | Founder, Something Major

I am consistently surprised by how infrequently employers check employee references during the hiring process. In recent years, many companies have eliminated the reference check as part of the process, especially for more tenured employees.

The logic being that references are self-selected, it creates extra time in the hiring process in a tight labor market, and that hiring managers can make their own assessments during the interview process on fit and capabilities. Especially as many companies have increasingly turned to practicums or skills assessments during the hiring process.

This is a mistake. Investing in any new employee is risky and expensive. It’s even more expensive when that candidate disappoints expectations and turns over.

References should be checked prior to an offer letter for the benefit of everyone involved

References–even though they are self-selected–are an important step for employers to protect themselves. When the candidate is a quality candidate, they provide another data point for validating their decision.

On the hiring side, I’ve seen candidates we loved turned down because their own, self-selected references gave us pause. It doesn’t happen frequently, but it happens and that’s exactly why employers should check references.

On the flip side, I’ve seen hires made without reference checks who presented well in interviews but were let go six months after getting in the seat.

Lauren McAdams

Lauren McAdams

Career Advisor | Hiring Manager, Resume Companion

The myth that employers don’t check your references is just that, a myth.

When I’m seriously considering a candidate, I always call at least one of their references. I’m not alone either: according to a recent study, 92% of employers conduct some sort of background check on candidates.

At the very minimum, I contact references just to confirm the information on a candidate’s resume is fully truthful.

Often, contacting them provides the added benefit of weeding out any especially awful candidates, as their references usually shed some light on their previous performance.

The likelihood that an employer checks for references always depends on the position

If you’re interviewing for a job as a hostess, the chance that the hiring manager will call your references is pretty low. On the other hand, if you’re applying for a job as a doctor or to work with children, the likelihood is much higher as those are higher risk professions.

As to how I check references, I almost always call — as that’s the fastest way to get a response. But if a reference doesn’t respond I’ll occasionally email as well.

Dana Case

Dana Case

Director of Operations, MyCorporation

I begin checking references after the initial round of interviews and if there’s a standout candidate we feel would be a good fit for the role

I do ask for at least two to three references from the candidate, then I call them to chat together. We’ll cover what the candidate’s work ethic is like, their skill sets, notes about their character, and how the candidate is able to handle dealing with certain challenges.

Mike Melville

Mike Melville

Principal of Technology, WinterWyman

Hiring managers use references as a way to glean necessary information about a candidate and their potential match for a role and a company.

The purpose of checking with references is so that hiring managers can place the candidate in a position where they will succeed, and references help them understand whether or not a candidate will thrive in the role over the long-term. Often, references provide an honest and refreshing perspective on a candidate that goes beyond what’s on their resume.

When checking references, hiring managers will be upfront with the purpose of the call

Being transparent and honest about the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses will help them in the long run, as hiring managers can be better equipped with whether or not a candidate with thrive in the role.

They’ll likely ask background questions about the candidate’s role there, how they know each other, and what the job entailed. Eventually, they’ll move onto questions like “How would you evaluate the candidate’s performance of their duties?” and “How well does the candidate pick up new skills and technologies?”

Hiring managers are simply trying to get the best understanding of a candidate and asking the right questions to the right people can help them.

Joel McLaughlin

Joel McLaughlin

Owner, Dataflurry

Employers do check references at any point in time

I operate a small business, so each and every hire is extremely important. I network with many individuals that work in HR for large companies and they actually require their Human Resources departments to check with references.

It’s easy for someone to claim they are the absolute best choice – however, a good reference can solidify your opportunity or also could destroy your chances if you weren’t honest on your resume.

If you are young, really anyone such as friends or family would work (We are talking first jobs here). Once you have had a career, you need to really obtain references from previous management or direct supervisors. The best reference would come from your direct superior at your previous employer and they should have nothing but good things to say!

You don’t need to always provide a reference. However, this could be a red flag to numerous employers. Avoid this at all costs! If you don’t want to share references, at least provide the opportunity to share references.

At the bottom of your resume, put some verbiage such as, “References available upon request”. Obviously, if you don’t provide any references, your resume will still show up in the potential employers’ inbox – But you are setting yourself up for failure by not setting yourself apart in each and every way.

People, unfortunately, cheat all the time, however; most of the quality employers perform due diligence. So if you want the right job, provide the right resume (with references).

Realize that whoever you place as a reference on your resume will likely get a call from employers asking specific questions about what you placed on your resume for that company.

If you heavily exaggerate something on your resume, your exaggeration may be the exact question they want to ask your reference at that company – because it sounded impressive and they want to learn more or confirm. So use common sense and it’s smart to just be honest and write creatively to make yourself stand out as the best candidate.

Also, I have posted lots of jobs online and hire personally all the time. The best advice I can provide to job seekers is to ensure your resume is quality (if not – pay someone to improve it). Equally important, write a short proposal on each job application specific to that company and why you would be a great fit.

Related: How to Make Your Resume Stand Out

If you are applying for your dream job, know there are a lot of other people that want that job. I literally sifted through around 40 resumes that were terrible or there wasn’t even anything that stood out. I then found a resume that stood out, and I was excited for the candidate. Guess what, it turns out the references were fake and there were lies on the resume – so I had to pass. However, I know with this candidate if she was honest – I would have hired her!

Susan Gonzales

Susan Gonzales

Founder | Director of Analytics, Silent Professionals

Private security jobs require a high degree of expertise, maturity, and integrity so checking references is a must

For most security jobs where the employer is the US Government or an affiliated US Government agency, you will likely need at least a secret clearance.

If you don’t already possess a clearance, obtaining a clearance is the first step in gaining employment. You will fill out a rather lengthy application (SF 86) where you must furnish a boatload of references (2-3 for every place you’ve ever lived or worked for the past 10 years).

There are special investigators whose sole job is to contact and visit with your references to ask them a series of questions about you and your trustworthiness. If you’re unable or unwilling to furnish all of the required references, you will be denied clearance and denied further consideration for that job or any other job that requires a security clearance.

If you’re applying for a job that doesn’t require a clearance, references are generally not required from you; however, you’ll almost certainly have to furnish your military service records (if you claim prior military experience) in conjunction with your resume.

A reference check to a past unit or organization is easy to make regardless of whether or not you furnish your own references. There is no unit that is so secretive or special that a reach-back reference cannot be made, so be honest with your references.

Dishonesty in this process will ban you from entry into any job opportunities in the private security sector in the best-case scenario. Worst case: dishonesty with your background or references may put a felony on your record (i.e. lying on a clearance investigation, Stolen Valor, etc.).

Chintan Shah

Chintan Shah

President, KNB Communications

We always check references for potential employees. Hiring someone who is a good fit for our company is of the utmost importance.

We reach out to references near the end of the hiring process after we have just about decided on a candidate

This can often help to reinforce a hiring decision or signal any red flags. Even though I’m well aware that people cherry-pick references to provide the names of people who will say the most favorable things about them, it’s important that someone has made connections and developed relationships with people who will take the time to vouch for them.

It’s not a great sign to me when we try to reach out to a reference by email and phone and don’t get any response. The best-case scenario is when your reference is responsive and enthusiastic. After having a positive conversation with at least two to three references, we will generally make an offer within the week.

Roger Maftean

Roger Maftean

Career Expert, Resumelab

Most employers will reach out to the references after the first in-person interview but there are some who do so before the first interview

Before making a job offer, most employers will want to backchannel potential hires to get 360 data that proves what they said in an interview was true.

What’s important to realize is that the driving force behind reference checks isn’t to dig for dirt. They simply help ensure that a candidate a good cultural fit and that they have the aptitude necessary to help the company grow. In most cases, recruiters reach out to at least 5 references—people who reported to the candidate, whom the candidate reported to, and 2x peers.

Joe Bailey

Joe Bailey

Business Development Consultant, My Trading Skills

An employer will check your references if they are seriously considering to hire you for the job

They do this to ensure that everything checks out in your background before giving you a job offer.

Employers check references by researching them on LinkedIn and other professional databases to ensure that the information the candidate provided is real. Employers can also check to see if the reference provided was indeed working in the same organization and at the same time as the candidate.

Employers can also contact the references and ask for secondary references (previous employers) of the candidate to find out more about the applicant. This method helps assess the authenticity of primary references as well as help create a fuller picture of the candidate

Bottom Line: Employers will mostly check your references when they feel that you are a serious contender of the job. They can check your references by looking them up online especially on LinkedIn, and contacting these references to see if they have any information regarding your other previous employers.

Amanda Magnanelli

Amanda Magnanelli

Marketing Manager, Boost Agents

References are a great resource for employers to understand how a prospective employee will fit in with their team. We prefer to speak to references via a phone call instead of email because it provides more candid answers.

In order to make sure we are respecting the valuable time of the references, we only contact them at the end of the hiring process

This is when we are close to providing an offer. References are used to verify the information and provide insight into the candidate’s management style, ambitions, and how they handle teamwork. If there is a shortlist of candidates, the references will help determine who is the best fit for the company.

Jacques Buffett

Jacques Buffett

Career Expert, Zety

Reference checks really depend on the company and the recruitment process

Typically, being asked for references indicates a hiring manager is genuinely interested in you as a candidate. Why? Because collecting and checking references is time-consuming and most companies decide on doing this only when they are serious about a candidate.

The candidates’ screening is also more common for management-level recruitment and when recruiting for very specific or technical positions, where particular skills or experience need to be verified.

Most recruiters prefer to contact endorsers by phone since it’s a quicker way to reach them and verify their identity.

So it’s good to make sure all your endorsers’ contact information is valid. Requesting written references upon leaving a company may also come in handy, but again, these may not be sufficient for your future employer.

William Taylor

William Taylor

Career Development Manager, Mint Resume

References are checked in writing before the first interview

Reference checks help potential employers confirm that candidates have been honest in their job application and interview responses. Some employers also check references in writing so they have a record of the reference. This also provides the reference giver with authorization to release information on behalf of the applicant.

I personally know a lot of employers who check references before the first interview but there’s no fixed rule. It varies from employer to employer.

Shawn Breyer

shawn-breyer

Owner, Atlanta House Buyers

When we call references, we avoid yes or no questions and stick to open-ended ones

We ask the individual questions like, “What are some tough situations at work this individual has had to deal with?” and “What do you think this person should focus on improving?”

We are looking to get another person’s perspective on potential flaws this candidate has. We also want to know what problems this person is struggling with. Our assumption is that the reference provided is a close friend at work. So, they will know what that person struggles with the most.

References are not prepared with canned responses like an interviewee is so they are a perfect opportunity to learn more about your potential team members.

Jacob Dayan

Jacob Dayan

CEO & Co-founder, Community Tax, Finance Pal

It is becoming an industry standard for employers and HR managers to check and reach out to all references and past employers

There has been an increasing number of black-market businesses that provide professional fake resume services. Some of the higher paying services seem very legitimate and provide secretaries and “bosses” that will respond to calls and emails. Some of them will even work for background checks.

Many HR managers are trained to identify fake resume services and are very thorough when performing background and reference checks. They ask specialized questions that determine whether or not your qualifications line up with your credentials.

So, do not use these services or lie on your resume, it will end up working against your favor.

Elise di Sabella

Elise di Sabella

Writer, Auto Insurance Companies

Requiring references on an application for employment has been required for as long as I can recall. Typically reference checking is one of the last steps in the hiring process.

Reference checks are usually done after you have been interviewed and the organization is ready to make a final selection

Having worked in a variety of staffing and recruiting positions throughout my career, I can count on one hand the number of times I have called a reference. I can’t think of one time where it was an effective use of my time or netted any useful information.

The challenge is multi-faceted. Organizations utilize ATS systems to filter and screen resumes before a human being ever sees them. Even once a recruiter or hiring manager sees your profile they are typically spending under a minute making a decision whether or not a candidate should be moved to the interview process.

Further, the war for talent is fierce and candidates expect quick response times from organizations.

Reference checking is out-dated, most recruiters and hiring managers don’t have time to do it

Many organizations have policies in place against giving references, at most someone in HR can verify dates of employment. You would be hard-pressed to find someone willing to give you the details on work performance or behavioral concerns.

Organizations would be better-suited spending time improving the recruiting and selection process to identify the strongest match than trying to wrench information out of someone who either can’t give you any or will only give you positive feedback.

Savvy candidates and hiring managers alike will take time to review, update, and promote their LinkedIn profile as a reference. It’s real-time, it can be used to validate the information contained in resumes and commented on in interviews, and includes endorsements for skills and recommendations from former colleagues.

Candidates need to be aware of their social media presence, many employers are searching online to learn more about candidates and LinkedIn is often a top search result.

Alexander M. Kehoe

Alexander M. Kehoe

Co-Founder & Operations Director, Caveni Digital Solutions

References have played far less of a role in hiring as many employers refuse to offer feedback and simply confirm work history.

Realistically, references are only really valuable when the hiring process is stuck in between two workers and there needs to be some sort of tie-breaker. Someone with better references that confirm previous work history will generally be a better choice than someone equally qualified with less extensive references.