What is Included in a Reference Check for Employment

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Many employers check references as part of the hiring process. A reference check is when an employer contacts a job applicant’s previous employers, schools, colleges, and other sources to learn more about his or her employment history, educational background, and qualifications for a job.

What Is Included in a Reference Check?

A reference check can include several steps. The employer could simply verify dates of employment and job titles and dates of attendance at college and the degree attained. An in-depth reference check will involve talking to references to gain insight into an applicant’s skills, qualifications, and abilities to do the job.

In the case of an in-depth check, your references can expect questions similar to those asked of job applicants during an interview. For example, they might be asked about the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses, best qualities, ability to cope with stress, etc.


The employer wants to confirm that you have the employment history and qualifications you have stated on your resume or job application.

The company also wants to know if you have the right skills for the job and if you will fit in well with the organization.

Is a Reference Check the Same Thing as a Background Check?

Short answer: sort of. Although reference checks and background checks cover much of the same ground, they have a slightly different focus. Reference checks are intended to provide insight into your abilities as a performer, while background checks are intended to verify your experience and credentials.

A reference check typically focuses on the professional and personal references that you provide to the employer. (Although not always.) On the other hand, a background check may include a review of your employment background, credit history, and criminal record.


92% of employers conduct background checks, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

Permission for Background and Reference Checks

When Employers Must Ask for Your Permission

An employer will need your permission to conduct a credit check or use a third party to check your background. Your permission also may be required for your school transcripts or other educational information to be released.

Employer best practices include asking for permission prior to talking to anyone about you. Most companies notify candidates that they can expect to have references checked, and you may be asked to sign a form that gives consent for a reference check.

State Consent Laws

Some states have laws regulating consent requirements and what a company can ask employers about former employees. Some of these laws provide employer protections and immunity from liability for disclosing employee information.

However, many states don’t require companies to get your permission before checking references. In addition, the organization can check with people other than those on the list of references you may have provided them.


Check with your state’s department of labor for more information. 

What Is Back-Door Reference Checking?

Back-door reference checking is when an employer checks with people you don’t list as a reference. Those people could be former colleagues or managers or other sources the company finds who can speak to your qualifications. The same laws and protections, for both applicants and employers, apply.

Tips for Easier Reference Checks

Follow instructions. Some employers will ask for references to be submitted with a job application. In that case, it’s obviously best to include them. However, if the employer doesn’t specifically ask for references as part of the job application, don’t include them until requested.

When appropriate, submit your references as a separate list with contact information. It’s not necessary to include a line on your resume stating that references are available upon request.

Line up references before beginning the interview process. Some hiring managers will want to speak to your references before considering you for a job interview. Based on the results of the reference check, you may or may not be invited to interview, so it makes sense to line up yours before you contact employers.

Ask before listing someone as a reference. Most of the time, people will be happy to give you a reference—provided that they have good things to say. Be sure to ask potential references whether they’d be willing to speak on your behalf before giving their names to the hiring manager.

This will help you avoid potential embarrassment—in the hopefully rare event that a former colleague, professor, etc., would provide a less than glowing report—and it also helps ensure that the reference will be available when the employer reaches out to conduct a check.

Choose references who have a positive impression of your workand recent experience working with you. Naturally, you want to avoid choosing anyone who would say something negative about your job performance or fitness for the role. In addition, it’s a good idea to choose potential references who worked with you recently. A former coworker from 10 years ago might have a cloudy memory of your performance and projects. Plus, the hiring manager would likely wonder why you don’t have more recent references to share.

Give your reference the information they need. Tell about the job you’re applying for so that the reference is prepared to discuss why you would be a good prospect for the job.


Consider giving them a copy of the job listing and your resume, or just emphasizing the skills the employer is most interested in.

This might feel awkward if you’re not used to asking for endorsement, but remember that you’re not dictating what you want your reference to say—merely offering insight on what the hiring manager wants to know about you.

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  1. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Background Checks: What Employers Need to Know.” Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  2. The Society for Human Resource Management. “SHRM: Employers Slow to Pick Up Trend of Continuous Screening.” Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  3. The Society for Human Resource Management. “FCRA 101: How to Avoid Risky Background Checks.” Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

  4. Nolo.com. “State Laws on References and Statements By Former Employers.” Accessed Sept. 24, 2020.

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