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Best Practices for Checking Pre-Employment References

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As HR departments ramp up their spring hiring, it’s a good time to review reference-checking processes and remind hiring managers to follow established procedures.

Checking references from previous employers is an extremely important and valuable step in the selection process. HR should ensure reference-checking processes are consistently practiced and information pertinent to an applicant’s suitability is gathered prior to hiring a candidate.

Best Practices

Reference checks validate information gathered in the interview and provide insight into how a candidate was perceived by previous supervisors or close associates at current or former places of employment. Checks can be conducted by the hiring manager or HR by contacting at least three or four work-related references who can provide accurate, work-related information about an applicant.

Telephone references conducted after the interview are the most effective method of obtaining information and can be completed in a more timely manner than written references. Telephone references also provide an opportunity to verify the identity of the reference and obtain specific information about his or her relationship to the applicant.

HR can develop a written outline of questions to guide the conversation, ensure inquiries are job related, and ensure consistency. Sample forms for professional and service and support personnel are available in the HR Library (member login required).

As with all HR processes, there are important dos and don’ts to keep in mind.

The Do's

  • Contact applicants to let them know their references will be contacted to avoid breaking the news.
  • Conduct reference checks on all candidates. Ask for at least three references per candidate.
  • Speak to people who worked with the candidate daily within the last five to seven years, particularly supervisors.
  • Ask job-related questions, tailored to the position the individual will fill in your district.
  • Pay attention to what references don’t say. Very general, hesitant, or neutral responses might indicate that the employee was a mediocre performer.
  • Ask behavior-based, open-ended questions, such as, “How would you describe John’s performance?”
  • When hiring teachers, ask for teacher evaluation records.

The Don’ts

  • Avoid yes or no questions.
  • Don’t forget that the references given by your applicant often have a positive bias. Build rapport with them to get a balanced picture of an applicant.
  • Don’t hold it against a candidate if an employer does not allow employees to give meaningful references. Just ask for an additional reference.
  • Don’t use electronic media to screen candidates without establishing rules:
    • Limit searches to information in the public domain.
    • Don’t ask for usernames or passwords to access private social media sites.
    • The person who will decide whether to hire an applicant should not conduct online searches. That way, they won’t accidentally learn of information that can’t legally be used in a hiring decision.
  • Don’t forget to ask the reference if anything else should be discussed as you wrap up the conversation. This is your last chance to get information of value.


For additional information on checking references, consult the HR Library Employment Reference Check page.

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April Mabry
April Mabry
Best Practices: Salary Notification Letters

April Mabry oversees HR Services training services, member library products, and the HRX newsletter. She has provided HR training and guidance to Texas public schools  since 1991. Mabry was a classroom teacher for 11 years in Texas and Michigan.

Mabry has a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Michigan and certification as a professional in human resources (PHR) and is a SHRM-CP.

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TASB HR Services supports HR leadership in Texas schools through membership offerings in specialized training, consulting, and other services.
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