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What is Included in an Employment Reference Check?

Referencing
Helen Gilroy-Powell

Helen Gilroy-Powell

7th January 2020

A reference check is where an employer or recruiter tries to find out more information about a job candidate by speaking to people who know them in a professional capacity. This could be someone who has worked with the candidate like their previous manager or a colleague, or it could be someone from their education like a teacher or university tutor. These checks are done to verify the candidate’s suitability for a job. 

Employers gain a lot of information about a candidate from their CV and during an interview, but to ensure they are making the right decision before confirming a job offer, a reference check is conducted. Speaking to the candidate’s past managers and colleagues can give a fuller picture and can help the employer decide if the candidate is the right fit for the position and the company. 

What is included in a reference check depends on the type of work the job requires and the seniority of the role as well as the preferences of the hiring manager. Here are the steps needed to conduct a reference check: 

Gain permission to collect the reference

Collecting a reference check entails collecting personal information about a candidate. Under GDPR, candidates need to consent to references being collected, and to specific people being contacted for the reference check. 

Even if the hiring manager has a mutual contact with the candidate (e.g. a connection on LinkedIn), they should still ask the candidate for permission to contact them. This is not only for compliance reasons, it also starts the relationship between candidate and prospective employer in a transparent, open and fair manner. 

Contact the candidate’s referees

The next step is for the employer to get in contact with the candidate’s referees, i.e. the people who can provide a reference. 

The traditional way of contacting referees is over the phone or by email. This can take up precious time as the employer needs to get through to the right person and then get answers questions or ask them to complete and return a PDF form. These methods can take up to 28 days to collect a reference. 

Today there are software solutions that automate reference checks, like Zinc. With this solution, the candidate is asked to enter the contact details of their referees. Zinc then contacts the referee and asks them to fill out a short online form verifying the candidate’s employment and then gives a few optional questions about the candidate’s attributes, values and ideal working environment. Over 90% of references collected with Zinc are returned within three days, drastically reducing the turnaround time. 

Reference check recruiter

Verify previous work experience

Employment verification forms the basis of any reference check. At a minimum, reference checks aim to verify that the candidate has the skills and experience required for the role. This is usually done by asking their previous employer to confirm the candidate’s job title and when they worked at the company. Often someone at HR will provide this information, and nothing more. If this is all the information that employers require, this will be the end of the reference check. 

Check the candidate has the right skills

If the hiring manager wants to find out more about the candidate’s past performance they could ask about the candidate’s duties, responsibilities and achievements during their position at the company. Hiring managers may ask similar questions to the interview questions such as ‘what are the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses?’ If this information is important, it is better to contact someone who has worked with the candidate directly rather than someone in HR who may have only ever seen the candidate’s name on a payroll and not much more. 

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Check for culture fit

Culture is the DNA of any company, including attitudes, values and beliefs upheld by everyone working there. It’s an important aspect of any hire regardless of whether the hiring manager wants someone who will gel instantly with their team due to their similarities or challenge them with alternate viewpoints and experiences. 

If the employer wants to check the candidate’s values and attitudes, they may ask questions around the candidate’s work ethic, how they may respond to certain scenarios and what environments they thrive in. To see some sample culture-focused reference check questions, visit Zinc’s reference question generator

Check any red flags

If anything during the interview raised cause for concern about the candidate, the employer may use the reference check as an opportunity to explore any issues. This is not usually to catch the candidate out, but it can help them make an informed decision whether the candidate would be suited to the role or not. 

For example, if the role requires remote work but the candidate doesn’t have any experience, this may be something they could ask about during the reference check. Likewise, if the candidate has never had any managerial or project management duties, the employer may want to ask the referee about the candidate’s suitability for these tasks. 


Reference checks help employers demonstrate they are practicing their due diligence in their hiring practices, and they also help employers place the right interviewees in roles where they will flourish. 

Being thorough in conducting reference checks doesn’t need to take a lot of time or effort. Automated reference check tools can help ease the load while ensuring employers are conscientious about who they hire. 

To candidates, reference checks can be a source of worry because it can feel like their prospective employers and previous managers are having a conversation about them behind their backs. This is why at Zinc we’ve built our automated reference toolkit with blockchain so all reference checks and other background checks are verified and stored on the candidates profile so they and view, own and reuse their reference checks.


Want to know more about reference checks?

With sections specifically for employers, candidates and referees, our free guide covers everything you'll ever want to know about employment reference checks