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Reference checks - pros and cons

You have a candidate who has gone through all the stages and you are ready to make an offer. Only one step remains - the reference check.

Done well, reference checks can be a game changer. Done poorly, however, reference checks will slow your organization down and lead to mediocre hires.

Let's take a deeper look into reference checks and how to do them well if you decide to do them.

Pros and cons of reference checks:

Reference checks can provide valuable information about a candidate's past job performance, work ethic, and character. Some potential pros of reference checks include:

  • Gaining insight into a candidate's work history and job performance from a third-party perspective
  • Verifying the candidate's qualifications and job-related skills
  • Learning about a candidate's strengths and weaknesses
  • Assessing a candidate's fit within a company's culture and values

However, reference checks also have some potential cons:

  • Not all references will be honest or forthcoming with information
  • Some references may be biased (either positively or negatively)
  • Candidates may provide references who are unlikely to speak negatively about them
  • Reference checks can be time-consuming and may delay the hiring process
  • Some companies are prohibited by law to disclose certain information

How to do a reference check properly:

If you have decided you would like to implement reference checks, here is a detailed guide to doing them effectively.

Who to talk to?

The best people to talk to are previous managers of the candidate.

Peers, direct reports and skip level managers often don't have the day to day context that will be useful for you as a reference check.

Rather than asking the candidate for a list of 3-5 references where the candidate can control who they choose, it is better to ask them directly for a list of their direct managers for each role and ask them to do an email intro between that person and whoever is doing the reference check on your side (see below). This will make scheduling a breeze.
If the candidate doesn't have contact information for the person, you can use tools like Hireflow to email them or tools like Zoominfo to find their phone number.

Who should do the reference check?

The ideal person to do the reference check is the hiring manager

Firstly, the hiring manager will have the most context on the candidate and can ask questions tailored to any doubts created in the interview process. They can also go deeper into the specific content than anybody else.

Secondly, the references are more likely to engage if the reference check is done by the hiring manager as opposed to a recruiter or someone else on the HR or recruiting team.

Should I email to schedule? Cold Call? Both?

If the candidate has done an introduction as suggested above, scheduling the call will be simple. If not, in today's world, no one is a fan of unsolicited cold calls. It is much better to:

  • Send an email explaining who you are and asking them for 10-15 mins of their time. Ideally include a calendar link to make it easy for them
  • If you don't hear back then you can try calling them. At least they may have context for the call from your previous email

It is important to get the process going quickly once the candidate submits the information as you likely only have a few days if you are in a competitive hiring environment.

Is there a sample email for a reference check?

Sure - something simple like this usually works best! Feel free to copy and adapt as needed for your organization.

Subject: Reference Check for [Candidate Full Name]

Dear [Reference First Name],

I hope this email finds you well. My name is [Your First Name] and I am reaching out to you because I am currently conducting a reference check for [Candidate Full Name], who I understand worked with you at [Company Overlap]. [Candidate Name] is being considered for an offer with [Your Company Name] and I would greatly appreciate your input.

I would be grateful if you could spare a few minutes of your time to chat about [Candidate First Name]. What are some good times for you in the next few days as this is time sensitive? If easier, my calendar is here [Calendar Link]. If it would be easier, we can also chat over email or text.

Thank you for your time and assistance.

Best regards,

[Your Full Name]

What happens if I can't get hold of people?

It is easy for reference check emails or calls to get lost in the shuffle. One tip I learned from a veteran executive recruiter was to:

  • give permission for the person to not get back to you
  • make it clear what inference you will take away from them not getting back to you

As an example, I often leave a voicemail that goes something like this:

Hi Mary - this is Abhinav, co-founder & CEO of Rocket. I have been trying to reach you to do a quick reference check on John who I believed worked on your team as a technical recruiter at Randstad and is on the cusp of an offer with us. Would love to chat with you for a few mins to understand whether you would hire John again and what his strengths were. Please call me back if he was outstanding at his job, my phone number is 212 446 8046 and my email is

No one wants to be the person that cost John a potential job unless they don't think John is outstanding. Or if they really think John is a dud, they might take a few minutes to set the record straight which is extremely valuable to understand as well.

If you leave a few voicemails like this and no one calls or emails you back, well then you have your answer.

What questions to ask on a reference call?

In my experience, there is really only one question that matters:

"Would you rehire this candidate or work with them again? Why or why not?"

The reason, I love this question is because it encapsulates the sum totality of their experience with the person. For example, I have had many folks in my org that were not perfect by a long stretch or had gaps in some areas but I would hire them again in a heartbeat. If someone went down a list of attributes with me about them as part of a reference check, they might score poorly on them but they had that X factor that led them to success. And those are the kinds of people I would want to hire.

If you really want to ask more questions, here is a useful list to choose from:

  1. Can you tell me about the candidate's job performance and responsibilities in their previous role?
  2. Can you provide examples of the candidate's problem-solving skills?
  3. How does the candidate interact with their colleagues and supervisors?
  4. Can you comment on the candidate's work ethic and attitude?
  5. How does the candidate handle constructive criticism and feedback?
  6. Can you provide examples of the candidate's successes and accomplishments in their previous role?
  7. How does the candidate handle difficult or challenging situations?
  8. Can you speak to the candidate's ability to work in a team?
  9. Can you comment on the candidate's ability to meet deadlines?
  10. Can you comment on the candidate's ability to adapt to changes and learn new things?
  11. How does the candidate handle conflicts or disagreements with colleagues or supervisors?
  12. Can you speak to the candidate's leadership abilities?
  13. Can you comment on the candidate's ability to work with minimal supervision?
  14. Can you speak to the candidate's ability to communicate effectively, both verbally and in writing?
  15. Can you speak to the candidate's ability to make decisions and take initiative in the workplace?

It is important that you have a pre determined set of questions you will ask every time for a particular role. This will help your team get the most out of reference checks and avoid favoring any particular candidate.

Reference check and recruiting agencies:

If a recruiting agency is involved and they want to do the reference check, then you should insist on listening in. If they are not comfortable with listening in, then they should provide you with a written transcript of the call as opposed to just their summarized remarks.

For obvious reasons, their incentive is to make sure everyone gets a positive reference 😊

Should I back channel the current employment of a passive candidate?

No - if a candidate is passively looking and has trusted you with keeping their job search confidential, then you shouldn't reach out to anyone at their current company. This applies even if you can informally back channel - your trust and reputation as a company and as a hiring manager are precious - do your best to safeguard them!


Overall, reference checks can be a useful tool in the hiring process if done properly. But great care needs to be taken to do the reference properly and derive the right inferences from it. Good luck.

About Rocket

Rocket pairs talented recruiters with advanced AI to help companies hit their hiring goals and knows technology recruiting inside out. Rocket is headquartered in the heart of Silicon Valley but has recruiters all over the US & Canada serving the needs of our growing client base across engineering, product management, data science and more through a variety of offerings and solutions.

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