Employers have a "qualified immunity against charges of invasion of privacy," so as long as questions are related specifically to job performance and other job-related factors, reports the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board in a report titled "Reference Checking in Federal Hiring: Making the Call." However, the real issue is whether the other employer will respond - many employers now only provide name, rank, serial number due to a fear of being sued, and "may need to be persuaded through skillful questioning," according to the U.S. MSPB.
Reference Checking: An Overview
Reference checking is important for several reasons: It can reveal inconsistencies in the information the applicant provided, weeding out dishonest candidates; reveal any performance problems or work habits the company should consider before extending an offer and protect the employer in the event of a negligent hiring charge. To minimize employer liability, ask questions that are specific, job-related and based on quantifiable factors and direct observation. Standardize the questions for all applicants to ensure consistency, but don't just stick to the script - follow up with questions designed to elicit information, such as "why was that?" and "can you give me more details?" Don't just ask about the candidate's strengths, also inquire about what the candidate needs to improve. UC Santa Cruz suggests asking: "If we hired this person and six months from now you heard it hadn't worked out, what do you think would most likely be the reason?"
Verify the individual providing the reference - ensuring the applicant really worked for him- by asking about his job title, the applicant's job title, when the applicant worked for him and in what context, and the specific details of the job. Cross-reference this information with the applicant's resume to confirm the details. Ask questions about certifications, achievements and specific facts and figures provided in the application materials or during the candidate's interview to verify the accuracy of the information the applicant has provided. If appropriate, also ask the reference about the applicant's educational qualifications.
Work Habits, Ethics and Interpersonal Skills
Ask questions about the applicant's attendance, punctuality and whether he ever missed assigned deadlines. Inquire about the candidate's organizational skills and how he handles competing priorities and high-pressure situations. The reference should be able to describe what the applicant contributes to the team, how he functions in a group environment and how coworkers respond to him. Check how the candidate responds to conflict, negative situations and difficult customers. Ask questions such as: "Does [applicant] focus more on doing things the right way, or in achieving the end result?" and follow up about the candidate's honesty and integrity. Finally, verify if the applicant is eligible for rehire with the former company, and whether the reference would hire him again if he had the chance.
Describe the job and the key skills and responsibilities of the ideal applicant, then ask the reference if the candidate will be able to succeed in the role. Check if the applicant has ever had any performance problems, and ask how the candidate was rated on his most recent performance evaluations. Inquire if the applicant has acted in a supervisory or leadership role, how he handled it, what his leadership style is and how others responded. Ask the reference to describe the applicant's process when he is given new responsibilities and assignments, with questions such as: "What are the first steps he takes?" and "Does he focus more on the details or the big picture?"
- U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board; Reference Checking in Federal Hiring: Making the Call; September 2005
- Society for Human Resource Management; Recruitment and Selection: Hiring the Right Person; Myrna L. Gusdorf; 2008
- "Journal of Business Inquiry"; Is A Job Reference Really a Reference? Addressing Employer Name, Rank, and Serial Number Policies through Job Reference Immunity Legislation; Bruce Elder and Sara Gerdes
- Best Job Interview: Sample Reference Check Questions