What Is a Reference Check? (With Tips To Help You Prepare)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 23 August 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In the interview stage of your job search, potential employers may contact your provided references. Hiring managers contact your references as part of their process to ensure you're a suitable candidate for the open role. If you're interviewing for a new job, then you may benefit from learning about reference checks. In this article, we answer the question "What is a reference check?," provide tips to help you prepare and share what you can expect during this stage of the interview process.

Related: CV References: A Complete Guide With When To Include

What is a reference check?

A reference check is when potential employers contact your references to verify your employment history and skills. Often employers ask candidates to submit a resume reference list or a document containing relevant background and contact information for professional references when they apply. Hiring managers rely on these references to:

  • Validate your interview answers

  • Learn about your professional history

  • See how you work in different contexts

How to prepare for reference checks

Taking an active part in the reference check process can make it go more smoothly for both you and potential employers. Here are some steps you can follow to prepare:

1. Confirm your reference list

Contact your potential references once you begin your job search to confirm they're comfortable speaking with potential employers on your behalf. If a reference declines, express your appreciation and move on to your next option. It's better to have references who can readily provide positive feedback. If a potential reference accepts, offer your gratitude and confirm you have the correct contact information, such as their current phone number and email address.

Make sure to update your references on your career progress if you haven't talked to them recently. You can also give them a current version of your resume so they can review your professional history, skills and achievements. Try to use people you have worked with in the last five years as references so potential employers can get a more recent perception of your work.

Related: How To Ask Someone To Be Your Referee: Email Examples

2. Contact your references in advance

Human resources typically notify you when they plan to contact your references. Let your references know as soon as possible so they have time to prepare. If you're interviewing for multiple positions at the same time, provide a job description for each role so they have context for each of their conversations with different hiring managers.

3. Have your character reference letter ready

Depending on the job, HR may ask for a character reference letter. This provides potential employers insight into your positive qualities and personal attributes. Having a general character reference letter available for the hiring manager can help speed up the interview process if they ask for one. When choosing someone to write this letter, consider a person who can attest to your positive traits and knows you well. Examples of people who may make a good character reference include:

  • Personal or professional mentor

  • Coworker

  • Professor or academic advisor

  • Client, customer, vendor or business acquaintance

Related: How To Ask For a Reference Letter (With Tips and Examples)

What to expect from reference checks

Hiring managers may ask a variety of questions to gather a complete understanding of your work history and how it relates to the job role. They may inquire about the following:

Your interview answers and resume

One reason hiring managers conduct reference checks is to confirm that your provided information is accurate. These questions establish your relationship and can set the tone for the remainder of the reference check. The standard questions you can expect potential employers to ask your references include:

  • Can you confirm the start and end dates of the candidate's employment at your company?

  • Describe your working relationships with the candidate.

  • How long did you work with each other?

  • What was the candidate's job title? Can you briefly explain some of their responsibilities in their role?

  • How do you know the candidate?

  • Would you recommend the candidate for this job role?

Your job performance and skills

In addition to confirming details that you provided during the hiring process, reference checks also allow hiring managers to learn more about your performance at previous jobs. The answers to these questions can help hiring managers assess whether the candidate is open to learning new skills and interested in career growth. Some of the questions hiring managers may ask about your job performance and skills include:

  • Did the candidate have the necessary skills to be successful at their job?

  • Did the candidate show any initiative to learn more, develop new skills or take on more responsibilities?

  • Are there any skills you think the candidate needs to develop to reach their full potential?

  • If you could work with the candidate in the same capacity again, would you?

  • Were there any issues that may have affected their job performance?

  • If you had the opportunity, would you hire the candidate again?

Related: Technical Skills: Definitions and Examples

Your strengths and weaknesses

Hiring managers may ask your references questions about your professional strengths and weaknesses. This can provide them with objective information about your skills and capabilities. They may also compare the answers your references provide with the skills you highlighted on your resume or in your interview to ensure they match. Some of the questions hiring managers may ask about your strengths and weaknesses include:

  • What are three of the candidate's greatest strengths?

  • What are the candidate's greatest weaknesses?

  • Can you share an accomplishment the candidate achieved while working with you?

  • Are there any challenges the candidate overcame while working with you?

  • If you could give the candidate one piece of advice to help them improve, what would it be?

Related: Interview Question: “What Are Your Strengths and Weaknesses?”

Your work style

While conducting reference checks, hiring managers may also ask questions about your work style and personality. This can help them assess how well you work with others and whether you would be a good fit for their team. Some of the questions hiring managers may ask about your strengths and weaknesses include:

  • What type of management does the candidate perform best under?

  • Does the candidate prefer to work on tasks alone or collaborate with a team?

  • What advice can you give me for coaching or managing the candidate?

  • How did the candidate support their coworkers?

  • How did the candidate handle work-related stress?

Frequently asked questions about reference checks

Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about reference checks to help you prepare:

Are a reference check and a background check the same thing?

While hiring managers may use both reference checks and background checks to verify information and learn more about a job candidate, there are some key differences between these two methods. A reference check focuses on a candidate's skills and abilities, whereas a background check verifies a candidate's credentials and experience. For example, a hiring manager may conduct a background check to make sure a candidate earned a specific diploma or worked for a certain company they listed on their resume. Hiring managers may also conduct background checks to see if a candidate has a criminal record.

Does an employer need to ask permission before conducting a reference check?

Yes, employers need to request written permission from job candidates before they contact their references. Employers typically request consent when candidates submit their references as a part of the application process. For example, they may ask candidates to check a box on the application form to signify that they give the employer permission to contact their previous employers and references.

What if my reference no longer works for the same company?

If a reference you plan to use no longer works at the company you used to work at together, you can still include them on your reference list. Make sure you have their updated contact information and let the hiring manager know what your professional relationship with them is. Depending on how long it has been since you worked together, you may also want to speak with your reference to remind them of specific projects you worked on, tasks you were responsible for or achievements you accomplished while working for your previous employer.

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