3 Questions to Avoid When Checking References


According to one CareerBuilder survey, 58% of hiring managers reported that they had caught a lie on an applicant resume. Unfortunately, resume embellishment is not only fairly common, it also seems to be on the rise. Thirty-three percent of hiring managers surveyed reported that they have seen an increase in false information since the economic recession.

Checking references is vital for finding the best candidates and preventing such resume fraud, yet companies need to be cautious about the questions they ask during a reference check.

When checking references, there are certain questions that can be beneficial and certain questions you should avoid. Some questions are simply ineffective at yielding quality information while others might run afoul of laws associated with reference checks. Fair hiring laws have been on the books for more than 40 years, yet managers still sometimes ask references questions that are not relevant to job performance.

Here are some of the questions you should avoid when checking references in the US:

“Does The Applicant Have Any Children?”

It is illegal for hiring managers to ask about relationship status before hiring. This includes asking if the candidate is single, married, divorced or if they have any children. It is also illegal to inquire about childcare arrangements and if the individual is pregnant or plans to become pregnant.

Any questions related to marital or family status that may limit the job opportunity in any way should be strictly avoided.

What you can ask references is that if the candidate has solid work attendance (excluding any legally protected work absences). You may also legally inquire about how long the individual has been at their former job to confirm dates of employment.

“What Is The Applicant’s Religious Affiliation?”

It is illegal to ask about an applicant’s religious affiliation including their church, religious leaders and religious holidays. Hiring managers also cannot inquire about whether an applicant can work during specific religious holidays. You are permitted to inquire about an applicant’s normal work availability and whether there might be possible conflicts with the hours required by the job.

“How Old Is The Applicant?”

Avoid any questions about an applicant’s exact age or age group during the reference check. Stay away from questions designed to determine if the applicant is between the ages of 40 and 60. Such questions may be used to establish cases of age-based discrimination.

What can you ask? If age is a legal requirement of the job, you may ask if the applicant will be able to furnish proof of age upon hiring.

What Should You Ask?

To comply with all legal regulations, be sure to keep all of your reference checking questions directly related to the job. Questions should focus on whether the individual is qualified for the job. Any information pertaining to the person's race, religion, sex, nationality, weight, financial status and age are not relevant.

Questions you can and should ask:

  • What dates did the employee work at the company?
  • Did the employee ever display any threatening or violent behavior?
  • Would you rehire the individual?
  • Would this candidate fit the attributes needed for the job?
A few quick tips for checking references:

  • Questions must be related to job performance
  • Questions should be designed to gain insight into past work history and performance.
  • Be careful about questions that might cross the line into territory protected by law. Inquiring about work absences, for example, might tread into information about absences caused by health issues, which is not legally permissible.
  • Phrase questions in a way that excludes such issues.
Reference checking is essential for verifying an applicant’s resume information and for checking up on past job performance. Just be careful to avoid certain questions that could open you up to legal ramifications. One way to ensure that your reference checks are above board is to utilize an automatic reference checking service that will provide consistent feedback on job candidates.

What questions do you normally ask during your reference check process?


About The Author

Yves Lermusi (aka Lermusiaux) is CEO & co-founder of Checkster. Mr. Lermusi is a well known public speaker and a Career and Talent industry commentator. He is often quoted in the leading business media worldwide, including Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Business Week, and Time Magazine. His articles and commentary are published regularly in online publications and business magazines. Mr. Lermusi was named one of the “100 Most Influential People in the Recruiting Industry” and his blog has been recognized as the best third party blog.