Reference checking is an objective evaluation of an applicant's past job performance based on information collected from key individuals (e.g., supervisors, peers, subordinates) who have known and worked with the applicant. Reference checking is primarily used to:
Job applicants may attempt to enhance their chances of obtaining a job offer by distorting their training and work history information. While résumés summarize what applicants claim to have accomplished, reference checking is meant to assess how well those claims are backed up by others. Verifying critical employment information can significantly cut down on selection errors. Information provided by former peers, direct reports, and supervisors can also be used to forecast how applicants will perform in the job being filled. Reference data used in this way is based on the behavioral consistency principle that past performance is a good predictor of future performance.
As a practical matter, reference checking is usually conducted near the end of the selection process after the field of applicants has been narrowed to only a few competitors. Most reference checks are conducted by phone. Compared to written requests, phone interviews allow the checker to collect reference data immediately and to probe for more detailed information when clarification is needed. Phone interviews also require less time and effort on the part of the contact person and allow for more candid responses about applicants.
Reference checking has been shown to be a useful predictor of job performance (as measured by supervisory ratings), training success, promotion potential, and employee turnover. As with employment interviews, adding structure to the reference checking process can greatly enhance its validity and usefulness as an employee selection procedure. Strategies for structuring reference checking include basing questions on a job analysis, asking applicants the same set of questions, and providing interviewers with standardized data collection and rating procedures.
Conducting reference checks can reduce the risk of lawsuits for negligent hiring - the failure to exercise reasonable care when selecting new employees. Providing accurate information when called as a reference for a former employee is equally important, but many employers refuse to give negative information about former employees, fearing a lawsuit for defamation. This is generally not deemed a serious problem for Federal reference providers and reference checkers because of legal protections provided under the Federal Tort Claims Act.
(See Section VI for a summary of each article)
Aamodt, M. G. (2006). Validity of recommendations and references. Assessment Council News, February, 4-6.
Taylor, P. J., Pajo, K., Cheung, G. W., & Stringfield, P. (2004). Dimensionality and validity of a structured telephone reference check procedure. Personnel Psychology, 57, 745-772.
U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. (2005). Reference checking in federal hiring: Making the call. Washington, DC: Author.
Back to Top