How and When Do Employers Check the References of a Job Applicant [2020]

when do employers check references

When a potential employer decides to check the references of a job candidate, this is a strong signal that the prospective employer has every intention of making a job offer to the candidate. When the prospective employer decides to undergo this process, they inform the candidate that they’d like to perform a “reference check”. It’s polite and proper business etiquette to ask the candidate in advance of calling or emailing a reference.

When checking references, a prospective employer may perform two actions. The first is to contact the reference and ask for employment verification (unless an employment verification letter was included in the job application; which isn’t common) and ask about the candidate.

The act of performing a reference check or “checking references” happens after an on-site interview is completed (the second interview). And when the prospective employer has made a temporary hiring decision about the candidate and decides to check references before making a job offer for employment.

As a job candidate, it’s imperative to list only a previous employer or manager as a job reference. And only list a personal reference as part of the reference list if it’s absolutely necessary. A personal reference would be a close family friend who holds a significant job title. While a professional reference would be a previous manager who can vouch for core competencies in the workplace.

In addition to a reference check, a prospective employer or hiring manager may perform a background check. A background check will validate all educational qualifications listed in the resume and ensure there are no outstanding warrants or a history of criminal activity.

How Do Employers Check References

When employers check references, the first thing they will do is to ask the job applicant if the reference list or reference sheet is up to date. This allows the job applicant to make any last minute corrections to their list of references. The reference check will be performed by either a human resources team member, recruiter, or the hiring manager.

The hiring manager will reach out to each reference listed on the reference list provided by the prospective employee. From there, they will ask questions regarding work performance and work history. Questions might include, “What was it like to work with [X]?” or “What was [X]’s experience working with this particular type of job?” This helps to better understand the candidate’s motivations. Reference check questions are normally determined by the hiring manager.

In the job application, the job applicant should include the name, job title, email address, and phone number of the employment reference. Be sure to list the most recent employment history at the top of the page to direct the hiring manager. This will help the hiring manager understand the chances of the reference responding. For example, older employment history references are less likely to respond to a prospective employer than a more recent one.

If an email address is included in the reference list, the hiring manager will contact them by email and attempt to schedule a phone call. If a letter of recommendation or reference letter was provided (a written reference), then the hiring manager may refer to that instead of contacting the reference.

Never include a reference on a reference list that might be considered a “bad reference” or list fake references. A bad reference is a previous employer who wasn’t informed that they are being included as a reference. Or had bad working experience with the job applicant.

When Do Employers Check References

It’s customary to check references after the interviews have been conducted. At this point in the interview process, the prospective employer is validating the information that has been provided by the applicant. The reference should vouch for all information contained within the resume and cover letter.

When a prospective employer checks references, it does not indicate that the applicant is going to receive a job offer. Even if the employee references say positive things about the applicant, the employer may decide to go another route with another potential employee. As a candidate or job applicant, don’t presume that a reference check means a job offer will be secured.

In short, the reference check happens after the interviews have been conducted, and before a job offer has been made.

Common Questions from Job Seekers

Below are common questions from job seekers regarding references.

Do employers check references if they aren’t going to hire you?

An employer may not know whether they are or are not going to hire the job applicant at this stage of the interview process. Checking references happens after the interviews have been conducted and before a job offer has been made. A good reference can be helpful in evaluating a prospective employee. And may lead to the employer making a decision to make a job offer.

Do employers check references for multiple candidates?

Yes. Employers check references for multiple candidates that have moved into the final stages of the hiring process. It is customary for the hiring manager to ask for assistance from other HR professionals to validate previous employment and perform a reference check.

Do employers actually call your references?

Yes. While most reference checks start by email, where the prospective employer makes the first contact with the reference, if the reference is available for a phone call, it will certainly happen.

Do employers check references?

Yes. Background checks and reference checking is a common practice amongst employers and human resource groups.

Can a previous employer disclose why the employee resigned?

Yes. A previous employer can disclose this information. This is why it’s very important to resign from a previous job with valid reasons for resigning.

Will my future employer check with my current employer?

If on a resume, the employer is listed as a current employer, it is not customary for the prospective employer to reach out to a current employer for a reference check. Be sure that the current employer is excluded from the reference list included in the job application. The prospective employer will only contact those references listed on the reference sheet.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


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