Check Them Out

October 16, 2017by Micah Shaw


It is scary how few employers in Canada check references.  Larger companies with Human Resource departments know the value of reference checks, but smaller, entrepreneurial firms are often pressed for time and so reference checks go by the wayside.  The time invested in reference checks is worth every minute. It is a chance to verify what candidates told you, and to assess the relationship between previous employers and your candidate.

Use the notes you made during the interview as a basis for your reference check questions.  This habit prevents vague and personality-based questions that will not give you useful information.  Further, if you ask “What can you tell me about XX?” you will get subjective information and sometimes even information that violates privacy regulations.  If you fail to do due diligence on a candidate you can leave yourself open to a negligent hiring action.

A word of caution:  The same discrimination laws apply to reference checking as apply to interviewing.  You cannot probe into marital status, age, disabilities, religion, colour or national origin for the purpose of using that information in your hiring decision.  Be specific about the information you want, make it relevant to the job you are filling, and assure the referee that the information will remain confidential.

The obvious people to contact include the immediate supervisor, your counterpart at another company, human resources or your own contacts.  You may find that some companies are not willing to give references, but will only confirm employment dates and job titles.  These days, you can also check the candidate’s digital footprint for consistency of approach, attitude and behaviour.

Plan your questions in advance, and ask the same questions for each candidate you are considering.  I sometimes email the questions ahead, to give the referee time to find examples.  Your questions should prompt for specific information, using words such as:

Sara told us……. Can you confirm this?  Can you give me another example?

Jack said he was comfortable with feedback.  What was your experience with him?

Cam was very positive about his organizational skills.  Do you agree?

Just as in the interview, ask follow up questions to probe the answer. Make notes, and compare them to the answers you received in the interview. If the referee is evasive and will not give you specific examples, this is cause for concern.

An investment in reference checking is time well spent.  If you would like a copy of our booklet: Reference Checks: Tips and Techniques  just send us an email at, we will be happy to send it to you and review your reference check questions with you.