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NC Department of Health and Human Services
Division of Human Resources


Guide to Checking References

This guide offers tips to DHHS supervisors and managers to help you through the reference-check phase of hiring the best candidate.

Click on any of the following questions to learn more.

Why Is It So Important?

Uncovering Problems

Checking an applicant's references is the only way to assure that you are not hiring another boss's problem employee. How many supervisors have sadly said, "But he [or she] seemed like such a hard worker [team player, enthusiastic person] in the job interview."

Legal Issues

To avoid being accused of "negligent hiring practices" you must also check on an applicant's potential for violence before hiring someone. If you fail to check references on an employee who later harms another employee, customer, or client, you might be prosecuted for negligence in hiring.

What Problems Will You Face?

Limited Information

Many employers will give only dates of employment and are reluctant (or forbidden) to give out any details of the employee's past performance.

What Can You Do?

If a former employer will not give you enough information, it's a good idea to ask the applicant to sign a release. After you obtain the release, you can send/fax the release to the former employer and try again.

You can create your own release using a fill-in-the-blank form linked below. Just fill in the name of the employer and have the employee sign and date the form.

If you have gotten a signed release and the former employer continues to be uncooperative, you'll have to use your judgment on whether getting this reference is a "make or break" decision on hiring.

If all other indications point to a good candidate, you can put the burden back on the employee to get information from the uncooperative employer. Or ask the applicant to provide some other references from the same work setting (co-workers, other managers) if you think that will satisfy your needs.

If you cannot get the reference(s) you need, you are free to eliminate this applicant from consideration.

Note: DHHS supervisors are instructed to refer all reference requests to HR staff to handle.

If the DHHS employee signs a release form, HR can give out information specified in the release. So, if you are interviewing a DHHS employee for one of your positions, you will need to get the employee to sign a release form to get any information other than the "public information" normally provided to potential employers.

If the Applicant Checks "No" to "May We Contact Employer?"

Discuss this with the applicants in the interview and tell them that you will need to talk to their former employers to seriously consider them for a job.
Then, give the applicant time to talk to the supervisor and arrange a contact. You should then ask the applicant to sign the release form to have on file with the application.

What Questions Should You Ask?

Are some questions "out of bounds"?

Just as when you are conducting job interviews, there are certain questions that you should not askwhen checking references!

Do not ask any job history questions related to an applicant's:

  • disability
  • national origin
  • citizenship
  • marital status
  • religion
  • sex (including sexual orientation, pregnancy)
  • political preferences
  • race
  • color
  • creed
  • age

Sample questions

The following are some suggested questions that you may use when talking to a former employer. Depending upon the situation, you may use all or some of the questions.

Notice the tone of the questions as well as the content. It is important to ask questions in a respectful manner without any "demand to know" attitude or attempt to "trick" or "lead" the former employer into saying something positive or negative based on the way you ask the question.

You may also access a print version of this form.

  1. Will you confirm the job title and dates the applicant was employed with your organization?
  2. What was the applicant‘s documented reason for leaving your organization? Is there any reason you would not rehire the applicant? (If so, for what reason?)
  3. What job duties were typically assigned to the applicant in his/her position of [name the position]?
  4. What can you tell me about the applicant‘s overall work performance? What would you describe as the applicant’s strongest competency or skill?
  5. In what skill areas did the applicant appear to need additional assistance to develop?
  6. How closely was the applicant‘s work supervised and how well would you say he/she responds to supervision?
  7. Would you describe the applicant as someone who works best with others, as part of a team, orindependently?
  8. How timely was the applicant in completing assignments and meeting deadlines?
  9. How well did the applicant work with [the publicco-workers? specific groups/individuals served?]
  10. Overall was the applicant‘s attendance record satisfactory? On average, how many days was she/he absent per year? How often tardy?
  11. Overall, how accurate was the applicant in the work he/she performed?
  12. Did the applicant have any personal problems that adversely affected his/her job performance?
  13. Do you have any reason to believe that the applicant might present a danger to others in the workplace?
  14. Is there anything else about the applicant that you would care to tell me that I might consider relating to her/his overall work performance and qualifications?

IMPORTANT NOTE: After completing reference checks and making notes, send this information to your HR representative to be included in the hiring package. HR is required to maintain all hiring decision documents for legal reasons (i.e., confidentiality requirements, applicants challenging hiring decisions, etc.). Make sure that your notes are complete, accurate, and always job-related (i.e., not including inappropriate notes such as references to ethnic background or age). Ready NC Connect NC