NOTE: In light of emerging research, we have updated our reference checking guidance. You can find it here.


Reference checks. Do you swear by them, or just get them over with quickly as possible? Are they helpful, or just an administrative formality?

Clients often ask us what we learn from checking references. Common refrains are: “Isn’t it a waste of time? Don’t references just all say nice things?” or “Don’t most companies have a neutral reference policy just so they won’t get sued?”

We check references. My very clever employment attorney, Rick Vernon, even crafted a wonderful reference release document we’ve used for years. (Pro tip: When someone raves about their reference release form, you know they are a process geek.)

So what do we learn from checking references? Well, for starters we learn:

  1. How willing the candidate is to complete and return the release form.
  2. What kind of people are willing to be listed as references.
  3. How willing the references are to get back with us quickly.
  4. Whether the references were contacted in advance to expect our call.
  5. How willing the references were to share their time.

So simply asking for references tells you quite a bit. But going further, what do good references actually say when you talk to them? We advocate asking the references about job competencies, just like you did when you interviewed the candidate (“Tell me about a time when …”). But beyond their answers to your questions, what else should you be listening for?

Often references go beyond a candidate’s job competencies and tell us the candidate is:

  • Personally engaged in their work, invested in getting results, but “does not take thing personally” when setbacks occur
  • Curious to learn more about their work
  • Willing to share information
  • Happy to go above and beyond what is expected, perhaps working too hard. Sometimes not knowing when to stop improving something
  • Easy to work with, accommodating, upbeat
  • Professional in demeanor
  • Likes to be challenged
  • Willing to take the ball and run with it
  • Good at asking the right questions, tracking down resources, and solving problems
  • Great at communicating, easy to manage

Research shows that references from a previous work environment are not a terrific predictor of success in a future work environment. But that said, great people do tend to have great references. At the end of a good reference call, you should feel more energized and excited about hiring the candidate. If you don’t, it might be a red flag for you.

So, if you are not getting a signed reference release, or if you are getting a release and not calling the references personally, or if you are calling the references personally but not hearing glowing feedback like this…well, then you might want to adjust your hiring process.

For more perspective on how to make job offers, see How to Make a Job Offer and Negotiate Salary for a New Hire.