Is Checking References a Formality? It shouldn’t be and here’s why:

In most cases after a verbal offer is made pending a reference check, the hiring team feels that the process is over.  After all, references are just a formality and who gives a bad reference anyway?

Wrong!  References can be so instrumental to the hiring process.  And yes, I have heard bad references and even fake references.  By digging in and asking the hard questions, I got the information I needed.  I could have just brushed over this, but that would have been a great disservice to my hiring manager.

The reference check is not just a way of screening candidates out, it’s a way to qualify them for the role and most importantly, gain an understanding of how to manage and work with them.

I also find that most people checking references aren’t asking the hard questions and are just looking for a good reference to get on with the process of sending the formal offer letter.

No one is perfect, there is plenty to discover on a reference check if you ask the right questions.  Here’s how –


  1. Confirm previous positions – dates of employment, responsibilities, performance, competencies, training they received, salary, attributes needed, comparison to others in this role, etc.
  2. Ask about the candidate’s onboarding – How did they best learn?  How long until they were up to speed and how does that compare to others onboarded in that role?
  3. Ask about challenges – What obstacles were in the way that, if removed, would have helped this person to succeed further?
  4. Ask about communication and interaction – How are they best managed?  How do they best communicate with management and team members?  Is there a communication style that doesn’t work well with this person?
  5. Keys skill sets to the position – Dig on questions around the skill set and attributes needed for the new role in the same format as above (ie. Management: How did they manage their team?  How did they set metrics for their team?  Do you feel there were obstacles to increasing team productivity that if removed could have served the team better?)
  6. Discuss the role in question – Describe the overall objective of the role and ask the reference what they think the candidate will need to be successful and what obstacles might get in his or her way.
  7. Rehire – Would this manager rehire them again for the same position?  Is there a better position the person would be suited for in your company?

All of this data tells you about their past performance which is a key indicator of their future performance.

When checking references, you should always be speaking with someone that directly managed this person; someone that has an intimate understanding of the candidate in the work environment.

As you can see, references are critical to the decision making process and yet they are often underestimated.

Keep this in mind next time you are ready to check those references!


About the Author

For more than 15 years Kelly Robinson Jensen has provided recruiting services in a broad range of sectors. As Xelerate LLC’s Chief Operating Officer and Chief Customer Officer, simply put, her time is focused on her team and her clients.  Kelly sits on multiple Boards and committees and is a member of a handful of national organizations.  She is the winner of the 2015 SmartCEO Executive Award and actively participates in various local foundations focused on kids, health and economic empowerment.  Additionally, Kelly fills the roles of wife, mother and Aunt to 14 niece and nephews.


To learn more about Kelly, connect with her on LinkedIn at or reach at or 610-506-9870.