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 Department of Human Resources & Equal Opportunity

Workers' Comp

Reference Checks

Checking references is an important step in the hiring process and must not be overlooked. The final candidate must sign the Employment Application Release form prior to the hiring department checking those references.

Many companies have found it necessary to stop giving out information on former employees because of their fear of legal action. However, it is critical that you at least make the attempt to check the references, and keep careful written records of having done so.

The employer is responsible for actions of any individuals doing reference checking. An employer may not request any information about a job applicant from a previous employer, family member, or other source that it may not itself request of the job applicant. In other words, you may not inquire as to the candidate's age, health, sexual orientation, etc.

It is the responsibility of the hiring authority to conduct reference checks on the final candidate(s) they are considering to hire. The time it takes to conduct reference checks is nominal compared to the time, cost and consequence of hiring the wrong person for the position.


While the candidates are asked to provide the University with references, candidates should be informed that reference checking may be extended to their current and any or all of their previous employers, even though they may not be on their reference list. (Be sensitive in coordinating the checking of the current employer's reference with the candidate. We do not want to jeopardize their current position).

If a candidate tells you not to contact a specific person or employer, respect the request. The candidate is not required to provide this authorization, but checking references should be considered a very important part of the selection process and the hiring authority should be very cautious about hiring a new employee who will not provide adequate reference checking authorization.

All references should be relevant to the position sought. If a person provided as a reference by the candidate does not have knowledge of the candidate's ability to perform the tasks of the vacant position, then contacting that reference is of little use.

The best references are, typically, former employers (supervisors/managers with direct knowledge of the candidates work), former co-workers, and former educators of the candidate.

Internal Candidates

Reference checks should also be done for internal candidates who do not work for you. You do not need an authorization form from the employee since we are already the employer. You should ask the same questions of the internal supervisor/manager as you would for the external candidate.

Policy on Conducting Background Check

Do's and Dont's

Reference check questions should be directly related to the duties and performance of the person's job. Do not contact "character references" or references who have not worked with the candidate.

While the employer has the right to check employment references, both the United States and the State of Minnesota protect candidates and employees from unreasonable intrusions by prospective employers into their private, non-job related activities and status. (There are a few exemptions to this rule, for example, law enforcement candidates).

Questions related to protected class status or disability claims should be avoided.

Reference Checking

Before making the first reference call, you should be prepared with a set of questions that are related to the position and valuable in helping you make a decision.

Your Human Resources & Equal Opportunity (HR&EO) representatives can assist you if you would like help in developing questions.

At the beginning of the conversation with the reference, it is often helpful for you to describe the position that the candidate has applied for and describe what you are looking for in the ideal candidate.

This should assist the reference responder in framing their responses in a more meaningful way for you.

When calling a reference, introduce yourself, state that you are checking the reference on (name), a candidate for (state the position and UMD Department) and you have the candidate's permission and/or an authorization and release to talk with the reference.

If they want to see the signed authorization and release form before responding, make arrangements to fax or mail a copy to them. If they refuse to provide a reference, ask them what their policy is on providing references for current or past employees.

Try to assess whether the issue is their blanket policy on providing references or the fact that they will not provide a reference for this particular employee (or former employee). Questions regarding attitude, skills, experience and performance should be asked. For example:

  • Did the candidate work under your supervision?
  • During what time period did you supervise the candidate?
  • Are you familiar with the candidate's former job? If yes, please describe the position the candidate held (or holds) in your organization. Review: a) duties, reporting relationships, scope of responsibility, level of autonomy; b) how long they were in the position and what other positions they held in the organization; c) confirm dates of employment, job title, salary and dates in current or last position. Always compare this information to what was provided on the application.
  • What were the candidate's strongest skill areas?
  • Using a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the high, how would you rate the candidate in the following areas:
    a. List the specific knowledge, skills, abilities, or tasks that are pertinent to your position.
  • Describe how the candidate interacted in the workplace with: subordinates, peers, immediate supervisors and management (use each one that is appropriate for your position).
  • Was the candidate a person whom you had to motivate or were they internally motivated?
  • What aspects of candidate's job did (he/she) do well? In what aspects of their job did they require a higher level of supervision or seem to struggle with?
  • Describe the candidate's quality and quantity of work.
  • Did the candidate understand, follow and respect workplace rules and administrative processes (this could include dependability, attendance, punctuality, etc.)?
  • Did the candidate demonstrate flexibility when appropriate?
  • Describe the professional areas that the candidate either struggles with or should continue to work on developing?
  • Was the candidate a "team player"?
  • UMD is an organization that values diversity. How has the candidate demonstrated his/her commitment to diversity in your workplace? Describe.
  • Based on the description of the position that the candidate has applied for and reviewing their current or past job description, can you foresee any problems with the candidate being able to perform the duties of the position for which they have applied?
  • Would you re-hire the candidate if given the opportunity?
  • Is there anything else relevant to the candidate's performance and attitude in your workplace of which I should be aware?
  • Would you recommend the candidate for this position?

For Supervisor/Manager candidates the following should be covered?

  • How long has the candidate been a supervisor/manager?
  • Describe the number and title of the employees that the candidate supervised directly.
  • Describe the number of people indirectly supervised by the candidate (number of people reporting through other supervisors to the candidate).
  • Did the candidate do the following: (Clarify as to whether they had the authority and had actual experience in each of these areas.)
    i. Hiring
    ii. Establishing job duties
    iii. Recommending pay increases
    iv. Evaluating
    v. Disciplining
    vi. Firing
    vii. Supervising/managing in an union environment
  • Describe the candidate's supervisor/management/ leadership style (You should clarify and evaluate if it was an effective style).

Sample Reference Checking Form

(Verify that the applicant has provided permission before conducting reference checks.) Explain the reason for your call and verify the information with the supervisor (including the reason for leaving)

Candidate Name:

Reference Name:

Company Name:

Dates of Employment: From: To:

Position(s) Held:

Salary History:

1. Describe the type of work for which the candidate was responsible.

2. How would you describe the applicant's working relationship (with co-workers, etc.).

3. How would you describe the applicant's attitude toward work?

4. How would you describe the quantity and quality of the applicant's work?

5. What were the applicant's strengths on the job?

6. What areas did you think the applicant needed to improve/further develop?

7. If you had a position open for which the applicant was qualified, would you rehire him/her?
Why or why not?

Other Comments?


You should use the same basic questions for each reference for all of the candidates. If you receive conflicting references about a candidate, you may want to check further. Occasionally you may need to "throw out" a reference because of suspicion or knowledge of bias or unfairness of the reference provider. If you are satisfied that you have all the information to make a good hiring decision, proceed with your decision.

If you guarantee confidentiality to the reference provider, you must honor that agreement. This includes inquiries made as to a candidate's character or abilities during the course of employment.

Feel free to contact UMD HR&EO to review your questions and discuss any outstanding issues or concerns.

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The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
Last modified on 04/08/14 02:48 PM
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