Reference Checks


What’s the optimum number of references an employer should check on a candidate for employment?  Is it five, or seven, just one, or as many as can be found?  During the last 35 years of checking references, I believe the ideal set of references that should be checked is three.

Why three?  Well, checking two references can leave unanswered questions or conflicting responses.  One reference is obviously not enough – collecting information on overall job performance from only one reference can present an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the candidate’s skill set.  It’s even possible that the reference has been coached by the candidate to provide only positive information.

Checking more than three references can often be redundant, unnecessarily repetitious, and time-consuming.  It’s not uncommon, however, for some employers to want as many as a dozen references contacted in particularly high-level or critical positions.  There is little value, at least in my opinion, in contacting that many references.  More comments don’t necessarily translate into more information – or better information, for that matter.

Three references, however, provides the ideal balance of responses about various aspects of job performance.  That third reference frequently serves to clear up any inconsistencies between the other two.  Reference number three can also directly address any areas that are unclear or need explanation.  For instance, suppose a reference who worked with the candidate three years ago says the candidate’s verbal communication skills weren’t very good.  Then, suppose the second reference, who is still working with the candidate, says the candidate’s verbal skills are outstanding.  Very often, the third reference can explain the difference in the responses.  If could be, for instance, that the candidate was told he needed to improve his verbal communication skills and took a course in public speaking.  That would explain the difference in the comments by the first two references, but it requires the third reference to explain what happened.

Hearing the same story from additional references really adds nothing to the overall picture of the candidate’s job performance and suitability for the job to be filled; and, without the third reference, the  disparity between comments could unnecessarily raise a red flag about the candidate’s skill set.  Contacting three business-related references, therefore, is the most effective and efficient way to get the most accurate information about job performance.