Checking candidate references is crucial for verifying their fitness for your open job, but when is the right time in the job search to check candidate references?

Many companies wait until only a few candidates remain or even when the ultimate candidate is chosen to check candidate references, but these companies are missing an opportunity to get crucial data on the candidates they are considering.

Worse still, some hiring decisions makers only check references when they have a “gut feeling” that it is necessary, introducing personal or even discriminatory bias into the hiring process. [Learn More: Legal issues of reference checking]

Reference checking provides great insight into how a job applicant has performed in similar roles, and it should be a cornerstone of the hiring process, not a last minute formality or subjective screening tool.

How to Structure Your Reference Check Procedure

The structure of your reference check procedure needs to fit with your company’s overall hiring process, but there is no one right way to structure your company’s reference checks.

As long as all candidate references are checked systematically, effectively and equally, then your reference checking process is working the way it should.


Here are some basic guidelines to help you structure your reference check process.

Standardize Your Reference Check Process

Each open job will require different competencies, but the process by which references are contacted and interviewed needs to be standardized across all reference checks performed.

Reference check elements to standardize:

Reference Interview Questions

  • Questions that can be asked of all references that will reveal valuable information about candidates. [Get: Best reference check questions]
  • Questions introduced to this standard list based on job type, job title, seniority level, skill requirements, etc.

Criteria for References

  • Criteria for acceptable, unacceptable, phenomenal, underwhelming, etc. references.
  • The types of professional references that are most suitable for different roles you hire for.
  • Whether references who have not worked directly with a candidate will be acceptable.

Reference Vetting Process

  • How the credibility and integrity of references be verified.

Time Per-Reference

  • The amount of time that should be devoted to each reference check.
  • How shorter and longer reference check interactions should be evaluated to ensure fairness for all candidates.

Method of Contacting References

  • How references are contacted.
  • The protocol for when a candidate’s references cannot be reached.

Criteria for Reference Responses

  • How reference feedback on candidates will be evaluated for different roles.
  • How reference feedback will help determine candidate screening/hiring decisions.

Adapt Reference Check Procedures to the Demands of Jobs

The baseline structure of reference checks should be consistent across the board, but the structure of individual reference checks should be adapted to the demands of the job.

Every job has demands that will change the profile of the ideal candidate for that job, and satisfying these demands needs to be built into the reference check process.

At the very least, consider the following factors when adapting your reference check process to the demands of the job you are filling:

  • What are the hard skills that will be used most frequently in this role?
  • What are the soft skills that will be used most frequently in this role?
  • Which of your employees will the hire work most closely with and what professional/personal traits will make candidates a great fit for the team they will join?
  • How is this role different from the same role at other companies?
  • What personal/professional traits helped the last person in this role to meet the demands of the job?
  • Which traits helped them to be successful with which demands?
  • What personal/professional traits caused the last person in this role to struggle when meeting the demands of the job?
  • Which traits caused them to struggle with which demands?

Use the Intelligence You Gather

Reference checks can uncover a complete history of how candidates have performed in similar roles, so use the intelligence you gather to your advantage.

If you are merely using the reference check process to verify basic facts about a candidate, you are missing out on a huge data set that will improve your understanding of your candidates and your understanding of their fitness for your open job.

Use the intelligence you gather from reference checks to:

  • Confirm basic employment history details.
  • Confirm or challenge your assessment of candidate hard and soft skills from interviews.
  • Confirm or challenge your assessment of candidate culture fit from interviews.
  • Confirm or challenge your assessment of candidate interpersonal skills.
  • Discover challenges that a candidate faced in previous jobs and whether the candidate overcame these challenges.
  • Discover candidate weaknesses that a candidate was unwilling or unable to disclose during the interview.
  • Discover candidate strengths that a candidate did not disclose during the interview.
  • Get outside perspectives on candidate accomplishments they presented during interviews.
  • Discover what traits make a candidate easy to work with and the situations or conditions where this is most clearly demonstrated.
  • Discover what traits make a candidate difficult to work with and the situations or conditions where this is most clearly demonstrated.

When to Check References in the Hiring Process

The right time to check references in the hiring process will vary by company and position, but the wrong times to check references are universal: too early and too late.

Checking References Too Early in the Hiring Process

If you check references too early in the candidate selection process before you have screened out a large percentage of your applicants, you will have a monumental number of references to check, which will delay the hiring process.

Further, you will be checking references of candidates who you would probably not hire anyway, which is a waste of your time.

Checking References Too Late in the Hiring Process

If you check references too late in the candidate selection and interview process, you are missing out on a huge amount of relevant candidate information that should have been used to narrow down your applicants to the finalist candidates.

Besides missing out on glowing endorsements of candidates you may have screened out, the last thing you want is to discover that your number one choice of candidate is unemployable after dismissing many qualified runners up.

The Right Time to Check References in the Hiring Process

Generally, one of the best times to check references is after candidates have completed the second round of in-person interviews.

At this point, your interview team will have a basic familiarity with your candidates: their strengths and weaknesses, their qualifications, their attitudes and the areas that still need to be explored.

This is also the point at which making hiring decisions becomes more difficult, as candidates who are worth interviewing for a second time are similarly qualified.

Information gathered from reference checks after the second in-person interview helps to confirm or challenge the conclusions that your interview team is drawing about the fitness of your top candidates and to make better final decisions.

Hiring Process Reference Check Questions You Should Answer

Answering these questions will help you assess the current state and structure of your reference check process and improve on this process.

How are reference checks structured?

  • How many references are candidates required to provide?
  • Which types of references (Supervisor, co-worker reporting employee, etc.) are required for different roles that you hire for?
  • How are references contacted?
  • What is your procedure for when a favored candidate’s references cannot be contacted or cannot provide information beyond confirming basic work history details?

Are references being checked systematically?

  • Are references being checked in a systematic way?
  • How does the reference check process change for different roles that you hire for?
  • Are their policies in place to ensure that all references are considered equally and that all relevant information provided by references is recorded and used?

When does hr check references?

  • When in the hiring process do HR reps check candidate references?
  • Who in the HR department is responsible for checking references?
  • How is information gathered during HR reference checks delivered to the hiring team?

How long should a reference check take?

  • What is the average time that a single reference check takes for candidates applying to your company?
  • How does your “time per reference check” metric differ by job type in your company?
  • How does your “time per reference check” metric differ by position seniority level in your company?

Digital Reference Checks vs Verbal Reference Check Procedures

When checking your references, your two main options are digital and verbal reference checks, but digital reference checks have distinct advantages.

One of the key advantages that digital reference checks have, is the time they save. With digital reference checks, references are able to give feedback online when it’s convenient for them, instead of playing phone tag as so often happens when checking references verbally.

Digital reference checks also help your references to be more candid with their feedback, as many references will be reluctant to give negative feedback to a live listener over the phone.

Checkster’s digital reference checks help to reduce the time it takes to check references down to just 2 minutes per candidate.

Instead of playing phone tag, you receive candid feedback from references gathered in actionable reports along with an average of 5 passive candidate referrals from each candidate.

Checkster also helps keep your company safe by uncovering candidates who may be fraudulent during the application and reference checking process. The rate varies by industry but fraud can be as high as 10%.

From the time that digital reference checks save in hiring, to the standardized, compliant reference check process it gives you, Checkster helps companies get more actionable hiring data from reference checks while streamlining the hiring process.