Guidelines for Reference Contacts

Always check references before making a hiring decision. The information obtained can be used to identify applicants for further consideration, to screen out unsuitable candidates and avoid a costly hiring mistake, and also to alert managers to performance areas that may need to be watched once new-hires begin working.

The search committee should establish a group of core questions to be asked of all references, thereby allowing comparative judgments to be made, while insuring that crucial job-related information is obtained. Under federal and state equal employment opportunity laws and the University of Nebraska at Kearney Nondiscrimination Policy, it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of an applicant's race, age, color, disability, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national or ethnic origin, marital status, or veteran status. Asking a question designed to elicit such information could be considered discriminatory, if the effect of the pre-employment inquiry is to put the applicant at an employment disadvantage ("adverse impact") and the employer cannot show that the inquiry is related to a bona fide occupational qualification.

Before contacting references, scrutinize the application materials. Check with references to clarify any questions which arise from this review. In addition to verifying simple factual information, talk with several professional references to get a more complete picture of the applicant's job performance, character, and personality which were not readily apparent from review of the application materials.

The objective of reference checks should be to obtain information on the candidate's work performance and on personal characteristics that affect (positively or negatively) the applicant's suitability for the position. Questions, based upon position functions and qualifications, generally are focused on some aspect of the candidate's resume or the reference giver's assessment that the employer wishes to corroborate.

  • Steer clear of questions that are considered improper under state or federal inquiry guidelines or laws. Avoid discussing or referring or alluding to an applicant's age, physical or mental disabilities, earlier periods of unemployment, discrimination complaints, marital status, citizenship or national origin, etc.
  • Limit your inquiries to verifiable job-related information. Use the same format for all reference checks. Ask specific and direct questions related to each prospective job candidate's qualifications. Always keeping in mind the requirements of the job to be filled.
  • Identify the kind of information you need to know about an applicant based on your understanding of the position's requirements and specifications, and determine from whom you can best obtain it.
  • Whenever possible, check references in person or by telephone which often yield better information than standardized reference forms or written appraisals supplied by applicants.
  • Ensure that background information is weighed in the same way for all candidates. What disqualifies one candidate should be the basis for disqualifying any applicant.
  • The best way to verify information on an employment application and determine an individual's suitability for a job is to conduct a thorough reference check with former supervisors, co-workers or subordinates, teachers, and personal friends of the applicant.
  • Make sure that any professional or personal references to be contacted are familiar with the candidate and in a position to provide the kind of job-related information you need.
  • When assessing a personal reference, consider how long and how well the reference giver has known the applicant, and what kind of relationship exists between the two.
  • Document all efforts to verify or obtain information from references.
  • If negative information about a candidate is uncovered, consider its source and check its accuracy with other sources before using it to make a hiring decision about the applicant. Even then, be sure you have a demonstrable, business-related reason for using the information.
  • If you deny employment to an applicant because of information obtained from a consumer reporting agency, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act you are responsible for providing the applicant with the agency's name and address.

Last Update: 5/2003