Reference Checks


Since the object of checking references is to determine if the candidate being considered for employment is right for the job, the types of questions asked should be limited to only those which relate to some aspect of job performance – all the way from asking what the candidate’s responsibilities were on the job, to why the candidate left his or her last job.

Put another way, what prospective employers should not ask a candidate’s references is anything unrelated to some aspect of job performance.  Non-job-related questions include anything about the candidate’s personal life or any questions that are forbidden by EEOC regulations – things like age, race, sex, religion, marital status, national origin, or any disability issues covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That seems to leave a fairly large gray area where no clear answer exists about whether a particular question should be asked or not!  Take the employer who wants to make sure that a candidate’s personality will be compatible with the company’s “corporate culture.”  Can the prospective employer ask about this or not?  Or course, it can be asked; and here’s how it can be done.  Simply say, “How would your describe so-and-so’s personality on the job?”  As with nearly any inquiry that could have a bearing on how well the candidate will fit the requirements of the job, questions that address that fit are perfectly fine to ask.

There is a certain logic to prohibiting questions that have nothing to do with job performance.  For example, why would an employer ever ask a candidate’s references about his or her religion?  What possible impact could a candidate’s religion have to do with his or her ability to do the job?  On the other hand, asking about the candidate’s ability to work with others in a job setting is a perfectly legitimate question to ask.

Broadly speaking, questions employers should ask should include past job responsibilities, strengths, weaknesses, personality on the job, management style, career development needs, ability to work with others on the job, reasons for leaving, and eligibility for re-hire.  There are all sorts of ways to get at the legitimate issues an employer needs to know about a candidate for employment in an unbiased way.   For instance, employers should avoid leading questions – like, “Would you say so-and-so was a hands-on manager?”  A better way to ask that question would be to say, “Could you describe so-and-so’s management style.”  By asking the question in that manner, there’s no way that a reference can second guess the answer the employer is hoping to hear.

To summarize as succinctly as possible, if a question is about some aspect of job performance, it’s perfectly fine to ask.  If it isn’t, don’t ask it!