How to conduct reference checks πŸ”ŽπŸ“„

If you have ever written a CV, you will have likely put down the name and contact details of someone to act as your reference. But do reference checks actually add anything to the process? or are they a relic of hiring practices that should be retired? In this article, we take a look at the issues and merits of the reference check, and explore how we use Workflow86 to automate and orchestrate our reference checking process.

βœ… What is a reference check?

If you have ever written a CV, you will have likely put down the name and contact details of someone to act as your reference. A reference check involves that employer contacting someone identified by the candidate to verify details such as a candidates employment history, qualifications, education, and provide additional information on experience, skills and so on. The end goal of a reference check is to verify the information they have provided so far, and learn more about a candidate so a better and more informed decision can be made.

You will most commonly come across reference checks when you are applying for a job as part of the hiring process (typically near the end of the process). Reference checks are also performed in other contexts as well. Landlords and property managers may ask for references from potential tenants, potential customers or clients may ask for references from past customers and clients before they purchase a product or services, investors may ask for customer references before investing in a company, and so on.

😬 Some issues with reference checks

Selection bias

One obvious issue with reference checks is that references are typically selected by the person being checked. References will obviously be selected to provide the most positive impression of the person being checked, so whether that reference can provide an unbiased perspective can be questioned. This is why we recommend simple, factual questions versus open-ended questions where bias is more likely to come into play.

Questionable impact on decisions

Whether references have any actual impact on decision making has also been questioned. Reference checks are often performed at the end of a decision making process, which some argue diminishes their significance because the decision has probably already been made. In this case, the reference check only becomes significant if something major is uncovered, which is unlikely due to the self-selection bias described above.

Legal liability

Finally, some have expressed concerns about legal liability for the information disclosed in a reference check. For example, if you give a slightly too enthusiastic reference which leads to someone being hired, would you be liable if something goes wrong? Could you be liable for negative remarks about a candidate leading to someone not getting the job? Concerns like these have resulted in many reference checks being simplified to verification of the bare essential facts: confirming that someone worked someone, had a particular role title, and worked from the dates specified.

πŸ“„ Why you should still do reference checks

Despite these issues, reference checks are still a valuable step to perform. At its most basic, a reference check can be used to verify the details provided by a candidate such as whether they were in fact employed by the company on their CV, was their stated role their actual role, what did that role involve and what was their period of employment. This is all basic information, but it is surprising how often this can go completely unverified. Here are just a few incidents where a reference check could have saved a lot of grief.

πŸ‘ 4 tips for conducting reference checks

βœ… Check the basics

You should always perform reference checks to, at the very least, verify the details provided by a candidate. It can be as simple as confirming their place of employment, dates of employment, and role or position.

βœ… Verify the reference

Fake references are not unheard of, so you should ask candidates to provide official work emails for their references if possible rather than personal emails. If this is not possible, get creative with other ways of verifying the references provided are real. In our Reference Check Workflow, we ask candidates to provide the LinkedIn profile of their references.

βœ… Factual questions not open-ended questions

Some may disagree with this, but we argue that simple factual questions provide the most clarity and are the easiest to answer and leave the least room for bias to come into play. Make a statement and then simply ask whether the reference can confirm this or not with a simple checkbox e.g. β€œCan you confirm the dates that the Candidate was employed by The Leftorium”.

βœ… Make it easy for the reference to complete

Respect the time of the reference. Make the reference check process as easy as possible to complete. An online form that can be filled out in a few minutes or less is far less burdensome than ringing up someone in the middle of their day for a 15 minute conversation.

πŸ”Ž How we do reference checks using Workflow86

At Workflow86, we began to think about reference checks as we started looking to hire for roles in our company. Naturally, we developed our own Reference Check Workflow for orchestrating and automating the reference check process. Here are some of its features:

(1) We start the process by entering in the details of the candidate

(2) The candidate receives a form to complete with the contact details of their references

(3) Both references receive a tracked form to complete, asking them to verify information such as their relationship with the candidate, dates employed, position title, duties and responsibilities, and reasons for leaving

(4) The references get automated reminders every few days if they have not completed the form. We send a maximum of 3 reminders.

(5) Once both references have completed and submitted their forms, we get a notification email with all the details.

You can preview our Reference Check Workflow below and download it from that link as well if you have a Workflow86 account.

Sign up for early access πŸ‘‡

To build workflows like in this article, be sure to sign up for early access at

We are releasing invitations to early access users in batches over the coming weeks, so sign up now to get your spot.