5 questions for getting the truth out of references

Unemployment in the United States is down. That’s good news for the country and the economy.

Even so, there appears to be a consistent level of fraud amongst jobseekers. For instance, nearly 20-30% of candidates tend to fake references. Alone, that statistic seems less alarming. Couple it with the fact 70% of HR managers rely on those references for quality hires and it becomes a much larger issue. That’s according to a TimesJobs study that surveyed more than 650 recruiters. To add to that, the same study found 58% of employers always contact references applicants provide.

So, why call references at all?

Most hiring managers do it to confirm their instincts about a job candidate or because human resources professionals require them to do so. In fact, research has shown, in most cases, applicants list references who will give them a glowing review, not give a well-rounded picture of the applicant’s personal or professional skills.

With all of this data, one might think calling references is an act of futility.

But there is a way to mitigate the issue altogether and get references to tell the truth about a candidate.

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist. He gets references to tell the truth by giving them a forced choice between two undesirable qualities.

He begins by telling the reference there are two kinds of weaknesses: areas where we lack strengths and areas where we overuse strengths. He then asks the reference if the job candidate is more likely to be:

  • Too assertive or not assertive enough?
  • Too self-sacrificing or not self-sacrificing enough?
  • Overly anxious or not concerned enough?
  • Overly proactive or not proactive enough?
  • Overly detail-oriented or not detail-oriented enough?

As you can see by the questions, there is not a clear, correct answer. When put in this situation, references tend to tell the truth about the candidate. It’s easier to identify weaknesses and more difficult to explain ways in which a candidate’s strengths become damaging.

Former employer references

Now that we’ve focused on references provided by the applicant, we must also mention references from previous employers.

Most HR practitioners know they should check applicants’ references by speaking with their prior employers. Failing to do so could open a company up to a negligent hiring claim, should the new employee turn out to be violent, harassing, or to otherwise behave inappropriately and thereby injure others. Besides, knowing how an applicant performed in a prior job can help when deciding who to hire.

But businesses are also often stymied by the neutral response of "Yes, she worked here from X to Y as our sales manager. It is our policy not to provide any further information."

Here are some tips to acquire information you need from your applicant’s prior employers.

As a preliminary note, there is nothing legally preventing a potential employer from asking a prior employer any question they may have about an applicant. You may ask the former employer any question you would ask the applicants themselves. Of course, inquiries that would reveal personal information not directly related to the ability to do the job, confidential information, or any discriminatory questions would be off limits.

Keep in mind that former employers are sometimes happy to talk about good performers who were lost due to a spouse’s move out of town or other relocation. Moreover, sometimes the "policy" can be side-stepped with additional questions. When you want information about a potential applicant, be persistent, even if advised at first that it is not the company’s policy to provide further information.

Questions to Ask References

Some follow-up questions that can be asked include:

  1. Would you rehire this person?
  2. Are there any jobs for which you would recommend this person?
  3. At what type of company would this person be a good fit?
  4. Could you see this person having a future at our company?
  5. Did you work with him/her directly?
  6. Is there anything you are willing to tell me about the person?

You can also pose questions related to the company’s records such as:

  1. This person says that their final salary was X, is that consistent with your records?
  2. This person indicates that their employment ended due to X, is that what your records show?

If the prior employer remains adamant about refusing to answer any questions regarding the candidate, ask if they would be more willing to do so if you obtained written permission from the candidate. Some prior employers will react more favorably when you offer this option. Of course, follow up with the candidate to get this permission if you are seriously considering hiring him or her. Reticence on the part of the candidate to providing the permission sought may be a red flag to make you reconsider the hire.

If the prior employer is still reticent to respond after asking additional questions and offering to provide permission from the candidate, you might want to contact your candidate and ask if he or she knows why this prior employer is unwilling to talk about the applicant’s prior employment.

Remember, what the prior employer does not say may be just as significant for your purposes as what they do. Learn to hear between the lines.

And, most importantly, make these inquiries before you hire the applicant. I know it can be time-consuming, but taking these steps to obtain information about potential hires is important for the company’s legal protections.

Background Checks

One way to ensure that data is accurate is conducting a background check. This process will thoroughly check an applicant’s history to confirm the accuracy of the information provided on the résumé. This typically covers everything from verifying diplomas to checking previous positions of employment and the length of employment.

Before starting this process, HR practitioners must know what type of service to use. There are two. A vendor offering full-service background checks will do all of the investigation. Do It Yourself (DIY) websites provide instant results and allow for self-conducted searches.

Choosing which service to use will be based on the level of investigation needed. A full-service background check will do online searches, but will also contact past employers and educational institutions in addition to criminal background checks. DIY websites do not offer that level of investigation.

As one might expect, the cost of a full-service background check is much higher.

One important note: full-service background check vendors abide by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The FCRA governs how background checks must be conducted. Using services that don’t abide by these laws can leave organizations vulnerable to lawsuits and fines.


Hiring a new employee is never easy. There is always a step or two in the process that presents a problem, but those problems should be focused on easily fixed issues like getting the right paperwork. Hiring a new employee can be an enriching experience and a big step forward for the company, but that outcome is heavily reliant on finding the right candidate and making sure all the knowledge gathered about the individual is accurate.


Devora Lindeman
Greenwald Doherty LLP
Mason Stevenson
HR Exchange Network