How to Check References Using an Effective Format

Use This Format for Reference Checking

HR staff member calls a prospectives employee's references.

Cultura RM Exclusive / Frank Van Delf / Cultura Exclusive / Getty Images

Checking employment references is time-consuming and frequently unsatisfactory in obtaining the necessary information to determine if an individual is a suitable job candidate. Despite legislation that provides protection for references, many employers refuse to offer more than dates of employment, salary history, and job title.

If you have the opportunity to reach your candidate's manager, you are likely to receive more useful information that highlights the candidate's skills and contributions. Talking to human resources (HR) rarely yields the kind of information that managers need to make the right hiring decisions.

However, because of the fear of potential lawsuits, many companies have adopted policies that state that HR must respond to all reference checks. These policies also forbid managers and employees from talking with a prospective employer during a background check.

Who Should Check References?

Reference checking is often relegated to HR. When HR is tasked with checking references, they routinely

  • own the reference checking process
  • check references for entry-level jobs
  • check the candidate's list of prepped references

However, this task should be left to the hiring manager, as they will more likely be able to determine if the employee is a suitable candidate for a job.

References should not be checked until a company is prepared to make an offer to a candidate. This saves staff time and demonstrates respect for the individual, who may not yet have informed their current employer they are job hunting.

By performing a reference check, the hiring manager, who is the most familiar with the job requirements and work environment, can more accurately judge if the employee is a good fit. In addition, the manager's support of and belief in the candidate's ability to perform the job successfully will form the foundation for the employee's eventual success in the organization.

The manager knows the appropriate questions to ask the current or former employer about the candidate's work. The manager can listen for statements that indicate cultural fit and that the strengths listed match those required for the job.

Training for Reference Checkers

Managers who check references should be confident and well-prepared to ask the appropriate questions to obtain the most valuable information about a prospective employee. To ensure management is up to the task, they should be trained, coached, and mentored prior to performing reference checks.

A candidate's former employers and coworkers may not have the time to grant you a second call. Therefore, you must be well-trained and have the skills to influence references to reveal information about their former employee.

If you're not careful, each reference check can turn into a friendly chat during which you don't obtain the information you need to make an objective decision about hiring your candidate.

Standard Format for Checking References

As with most HR processes, a standard reference-checking format is useful. You can easily compare candidates and ensure you are asking the right questions to make an educated decision before offering the applicant a job with your company.

The following recommended format and sample questions can assist you with this task:

  1. Name:
  2. Reference Name:
  3. Company Name:
  4. Company Address:
  5. Company Phone:
  6. Dates of Employment:
  7. From:
  8. To:
  9. Starting Position:
  10. Ending Position:
  11. Starting Salary:
  12. Ending Salary:
  13. What does your company do?
  14. Please describe your reporting relationship with the candidate? If none, in what capacity did you observe the candidate's work?
  15. Reason for Leaving:
  16. Please describe the key responsibilities of the candidate in their most recent position.
  17. How many reporting staff did the candidate manage? Their roles?
  18. Tell me about the candidate’s most important contributions to the achievement of your organization’s mission and goals.
  19. Describe the candidate's relationship with their coworkers, reporting staff (if applicable), and supervisors.
  20. Talk about the attitude and outlook the candidate brought to the workplace.
  21. Describe the candidate's productivity, commitment to quality, and customer orientation.
  22. What are the candidate's most significant strengths?
  23. What are the candidate's most significant weaknesses?
  24. What is your overall assessment of the candidate?
  25. We are hiring this candidate to (job title or quick description). Would you recommend them for this position? Why or why not?
  26. Would you rehire this individual? Why or why not?
  27. Are there additional comments you'd like to make?
  28. Is there a question that I should ask that will help us understand what this candidate potentially brings to our workplace?
  29. Is there anything else we should know that will assist us in making the right hiring decision about this candidate?
  30. Thank you for your assistance.

Make sure to verify that the candidate’s reference-checking permission signature is on your employment application before starting the interview. If it's not, ask the candidate to sign the application before you check references. This is recommended as a precaution so employers are legally and ethically safe.


When called to give a reference on past employees, HR departments usually provide general information that does little to indicate a candidate's suitability for a position. If you are unable to obtain satisfactory information about a prospective employee, you may need to rely on your interviewing skills, as well as feedback from others who have met with the prospect, to determine if they are right for the position.