ComplianceLegalJanuary 08, 2021

How and why to check job applicants' employment references

Information from a job applicant's references can be extremely valuable. References from former employers are likely to be more valuable than personal references and can help avoid negligent hiring claims. Educational references should also be verified where necessary. Calling or writing are the two basic methods of checking references and the process should be documented.

Part of the hiring process is checking the background of prospective employees who you are seriously considering for your open position. Every background check should include checking with an applicant's former employers and other professional and personal references. You don't necessarily want to check every applicant's references but any candidate who is in the running beyond the early stages of the hiring process should have a reference check which is thoroughly documented. Don't make a job offer until you've completed your reference checking.

Employment References

Former employers are in a good position to tell you about an applicant's work history. At the very least you should be able to verify the factual, objective information the applicant gave you. Employers' references can give you some or all of the following information:

  • employment dates
  • job titles
  • rates of pay
  • nature of the tasks performed
  • work habits — including conscientiousness, sense of responsibility, and ability to work with others
  • whether they would hire the individual again, knowing what they know about him or her

Think ahead

When you talk with former employers, ask for specific examples of times when the applicant demonstrated positive traits. They make excellent documentation, should you run into a negligent hiring claim.

Sometimes, the employer won't tell you anything more than "name, rank, and serial number" information for fear that the employee may sue them. If you run into that, you may want try reminding the employer that most states consider the information "qualifiedly privileged." That means that the information is protected, and the employer who shares it is protected unless the information is given:

  • with known falsity
  • in bad faith
  • with reckless disregard for the truth

On the other hand, a number of states require former employers to provide a job reference letter or some information about people who worked for them. Obviously in cases where the law is on your side you should be able to readily obtain the information you need.


Sometimes you can get information about a job applicant from former (or present) coworkers or supervisors, but often they too are instructed not to discuss why the employee left or if the employee would be rehired.

Generally, the two ways to check references are by:

  • Calling: This is the preferred method because it tends to be faster, less time-consuming, and more revealing.
  • Writing: This tends to be used more when applicants have out-of-area references and when calling doesn't work. It does provide stronger documentation to prove you did your homework, though, and permits you to send the ex-employer the written release you've obtained from the applicant.

Calling to check references. The main advantage to calling to check references (other than saving time) is that people will sometimes give you valuable information over the phone that they do not want to put in writing.


Just because you are using the phone for a reference check doesn't mean you should ask inappropriate questions. Whatever you ask about should be job-related. You don't want to be accused of invading anyone's privacy or of violating anti-discrimination laws.

Here are some tips for successful over-the-phone reference checks:

  • Call once to schedule the reference check, and call back when you say you will. This gives the employer time to remember specific facts about the worker, or review the worker's file.
  • Allot plenty of time in case you get a reference who will talk at length.
  • Be sure it's quiet. You don't want to be distracted, and the check should be private.
  • Take good notes during the conversation and be sure to include questions that the former employer would not answer.
  • Sum up at the end, and be sure to thank the reference for the information.

Tools to use

The Business Tools include a sample script that you can use when you get on the phone with a former employer.

If necessary, offer to fax or send a scanned copy of the job applicant's signed authorization to release information.

Writing to former employers for references. While writing to a former employer for a reference check is more time-consuming than calling some employers won't give out any information unless they get a written request. Often the written request must also include the former employee's signed release of information form.

Unless they are legally required to do so, you can't force a former employer to respond to your written request for a reference. Here are some tips for sending a reference letter that may increase your chances of getting a response:

  • Send requests by certified mail to prove that someone took receipt of the letter.
  • Be sure to give former employers your phone number, in case they want to call you.
  • Be sure to enclose a copy of the applicant's release of information form.
  • Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Tools to use

The Business Tools include a sample letter for checking employment reference. You can personalize it and customize it, but don't add questions that may violate any anti-discrimination laws to which you are subject.

Personal and educational references where appropriate and provided, should also be checked for any applicants who may be hired.

Checking personal and education references

While previous employers are arguably of the most value when you're checking references, checking personal references may still be of value even though job candidates are likely to have picked those they know will speak favorably of them. Also, educational records are sometimes embellished or falsified by job applicants so employers should check these, especially if they are crucial to an employee's job function.

Checking personal references

Most employers don't check personal references, even when they ask for them. There is a common perception that personal references are usually friends of the applicant, and that they will not convey any negative information, in the event that it exists, because they are friends.

If you do ask for and check personal references, keep these pointers in mind:

  • Consider it a red flag if the applicant has lived in the area for a considerable period of time but cannot list any local references.
  • Like employment references, personal references are more likely to say things on the phone than they are to put them in writing. Call rather than write, if possible.
  • Have an information release signed by the applicant and ready in case the reference requests it.
  • Ask only job-related questions so as not to give support for a discrimination or other legal claim.

Tools to use

The Business Tools include a sample letter that can be used when contacting a personal reference by mail.

Checking education records

Educational credentials are frequently misrepresented on resumes and job applications, because many employers don't check educational references. It's important to do it, though, to make sure that the applicant has the qualifications and background you want, or in some cases, require.

Some common problems concerning educational background include applicants claiming that they have a degree that they don't have, claiming that they graduated from a particular school when they may have only attended it for a short time, or claiming that they have a degree in one field when they really have a degree in another field.

How do you obtain the educational background information you need? Most colleges or universities will verify a job applicant's degree or dates of attendance, and many will do it over the phone. In many cases, you can also obtain a transcript if you follow the school's guidelines for releasing records.

Tools to use

If an institution will not verify the applicant's information over the phone, use the sample letter for requesting educational records contained among the Business Tools. Don't forget to include a copy of the applicant's signed release.

You can also pre-screen an applicant's education by asking him or her to produce copies of diplomas or certified copies of transcripts.


If you've never heard of the educational institution referred to in a prospective hire's references, you might also want to check:

  • what type of institution it is
  • awards
  • if it is accredited

As with employment reference checks, be sure to document the details of your personal and education reference checks to assist you with your hiring decision and perhaps avoid legal action against you if the employee doesn't work out or commits a crime.

Documenting the reference check

Documenting your reference checking activities is useful for hiring purposes as well as an aid in avoiding negligent hiring claims that may arise. In case of a lawsuit, or even just to protect yourself in case an employee you hire later proves unsatisfactory, you should document every step of your reference check in order to show that you acted reasonably in hiring the applicant based on the information that you had or alternatively, could not obtain.

Tools to use

The Business Tools contain a reference check control form to help you document your reference checks effectively.

In order to avoid questions regarding your hiring methods, it is a good idea to create the following documents as you perform a reference check:

  • a list of all references checked
  • the name of the person who actually contacted the references
  • how you contacted the references, namely, by telephone or by letter
  • notes on all phone conversations made
  • name and job title of every person you spoke with
  • a copy of the return letter
  • copies of actual records received
  • the fact that you made every reasonable effort to contact the reference listed but could not do so
  • the fact that you did contact the reference given but could not get sufficient information from the source

Keep the records, once you have gone to the trouble of documenting your actions, as indicated below:

  • So long as the employee works for your company, include the reference checks as part of the hiring papers and keep these records in the employee's personnel file.
  • Treat an ex-employee's reference records and reports as merely part of that ex-employee's personnel file. A common rule of thumb is to keep an ex-employee's personnel file for seven years.
  • Do not throw out records of your reference checks on unsuccessful applicants. They are considered part of the employment records "having to do with hiring" that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires you to keep for at least one year after the date of the employment decision (if you are subject to federal anti-discrimination laws).
  • Once a discrimination charge has been brought or any court action has been pursued, keep the records until the matter has been resolved.


Your state's law may require you to retain records of your reference activities for longer periods of time than required by federal law. Be sure to check your state's rules before you set up your recordkeeping for reference documentation.

Finally, you should follow these housekeeping tips when it comes to properly maintaining your reference documentation:

  • Remove any especially sensitive records from the file. If the reference records include credit reports or criminal record reports, you may want to put them in a separate file with the employee's medical records, which also by law must remain confidential.
  • If you take reference reports out of a personnel file, leave a note in the file indicating this action.
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