Skip to the main content.

6 min read

Professional References: Gaining Insight Beyond Verification of Employment

Employment verifications afford a viable means for confirming basic details provided by a candidate in their stated work history. However, they often fail to present a comprehensive understanding of a potential employee’s individual skill set and potential for organizational fit. Personal references often afford a deeper insight into a candidate's character, integrity, interpersonal skills, and work ethic. They go beyond simply confirming previous places of employment, dates employed, and job titles to aid in evaluating a candidate's suitability for a specific position and likelihood for success.


Benefits of Professional References

Including professional references as part of a comprehensive background check provides employers a unique opportunity to assess previous work performance, confirm skill levels, measure cultural fit, and evaluate reliability to help determine if the candidate is the right fit for their organization and the intended role they will fill. Feedback directly from a person who previously worked with the candidate can aid in confirming details shared by candidates during the interview process and provide a direct view into the experience of working with the candidate. Employment verifications generally only provide basic statistical information, including dates of employment and job title, from sources like the prior employer’s Human Resources department or third-party employment data provider, who often have had little to no direct interaction with your job candidate. Professional references can provide a broader perspective into the experience of managing and working directly with the candidate. In some instances, professional references can even be sought from former clients and vendors, providing a well-rounded view of the candidate’s capabilities. Below are five best practices to help ensure a smooth and effective professional reference check process.


1.  Choose a Reliable Provider

PBSA-accredited consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) are well-versed in Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) regulations and applicable state and local requirements. Partnering with a trusted provider can help ensure your professional reference verification process complies with all legal requirements, including providing appropriate disclosures, obtaining candidate consent, and adhering to required adverse action procedures should a reference reveal derogatory information impacting the candidate’s suitability for placement.

Conducting professional references is a function of an investigative consumer report. This type of employment screening report differs from a standard consumer report as it relates to subjective versus objective information. Employers typically use consumer reports to uncover fact-based details like whether the candidate has a criminal record or possesses a professional license required for the position they seek. Conversely, investigative consumer reports are primarily used by employers to evaluate the individual’s character, reputation, and mode of living through interviews with people who have had direct interaction with the consumer.

Partnering with a knowledgeable CRA can aid employers in ensuring professional reference checks adhere to all federal, state, and local requirements by providing sample disclosure documents and supporting consistent processes in obtaining and documenting consent. Further, they ensure consistency in the type of questions asked and often utilize reference engagement processes with proven results for successful completion. Trusted providers can also ensure FCRA-compliant dispute processes are followed in the event a candidate challenges the results of their background screen.


2.  Obtain Appropriate Consent

Before conducting a reference check, current regulatory requirements stipulate providing an FCRA-compliant disclosure as to the nature and scope of the investigative consumer report and any state or local disclosures required under the law based upon the candidate’s place of residence or primary work location. Further, employers are also required to obtain acknowledgment indicating receipt of the disclosure(s) and the candidate’s written consent to conduct an investigative consumer report. Failure to adhere to legal requirements in affording proper notice and adequate disclosure as to the nature of the investigative report can lead to costly litigation, judgments, and fines.


3.  Ensure Reference Questions Adhere to Legal Guidelines

If the reference has ties to the candidate’s former employer either because they are still employed by them or are a party to an employment non-disclosure agreement, there may be limits regarding the type of information they can share. Many states have specific legal restrictions on the kind of information employers can disclose regarding current and former employees. For example, Delaware annotated code 19, § § 708 to 709, stipulates former employers may provide details regarding a candidate's job performance, performance evaluations, work-related characteristics, and any known legal violations. In contrast, in compliance with 745 III. Comp. Stat. § 46/10, Illinois employers can only provide job performance information. Understanding legal requirements in each state where professional references are commonly requested can aid employers in formulating appropriate, consistent questions to promote legal compliance and equal treatment of all job candidates.


4.  Formulate Succinct, Comprehensive & Consistent Questions

Position your organization for success by asking the right questions. Optimal questions should be open-ended, allowing the reference to provide a narrative answer. Questions that elicit one-word answers, like yes or no, should often be avoided. Employers should also be mindful of the number of questions and try to avoid redundancy. Keeping questionnaires to no more than 5-10 succinct questions, depending on the complexity of the intended role, is a good rule of thumb and will help ensure optimal response rates. Including questions that provide an opportunity to share a specific example can also be quite effective. For instance, a question directed at obtaining insight into the candidate’s ability to work well in a collaborative team environment could be worded as “Provide an example of a situation where the subject worked in a team setting to solve an impactful challenge or complete a significant project, including specific details on the subject’s individual contributions to a successful outcome.” Asking for feedback regarding a specific instance helps ensure a more thoughtful response than simply inquiring whether the subject works well in a team environment.

Collaboration with a qualified CRA can afford significant benefits as they frequently maintain question templates to serve as a starting point, which can be modified to meet specific organizational and regulatory needs. Utilizing a standard template, whether it is customized for your organization or direct from your CRA partner, can also ensure a consistent and impartial approach to questions. One of the costliest mistakes employers can make in obtaining professional references is a lack of question consistency, which can result in real or perceived bias and discrimination. Employers can mitigate and avoid this challenge by outsourcing professional references to a qualified third party with documented consistency in the reference questions asked. Further, reference providers are more likely to act quickly and favorably when afforded various response options like AccuSourceHR™ Workforce Solutions mobile-friendly, text-enabled response templates or features that ease the burden of responding to a reference request.


5.  Seize the Opportunity to Confirm Candidate Supplied Details

Professional references often afford the opportunity to verify specific work history or skill details the candidate provides in their employment application, resume, CV, or during the interview process. This information may include time on the job, previous job title, and general work duties. According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) article, 56% of job applicants surveyed openly admit to stretching the truth or outright lying on their resume to better position themselves for a specific position. If the professional reference provides information contradicting what the candidate has stated, it could signify a lack of honesty on the part of a candidate.

While some exaggerations may be so extreme they lead to the candidate's disqualification for lack of skill or experience necessary for success in their intended role, any deviations from what the candidate provided in the reference’s response should serve as an opportunity to investigate further. Utilizing the scenario provided above, if an applicant states in an interview they successfully worked as a collaborative team member for a specific employer, yet their professional reference for that employer indicates they were always a sole contributor or experienced challenges in a team dynamic, the reference’s response should open the door to more in-depth discussion before making a final employment decision to ensure the candidate is the right fit for their intended role, especially if it involves a team dynamic.


What if you hit a roadblock?

Some employers have instituted no-reference policies, restricting responses to requests for professional references. These policies often stipulate that all employment verifications must be facilitated through a specific company-defined source and that all data provided must meet narrow guidelines. These policies, while frustrating, are reasonable attempts to limit the employer’s legal liability risk. A professional reference’s refusal to respond by citing a company policy restriction or other legal obligation should never negatively reflect on the candidate.

However, clear, upfront communication regarding your organization’s policies and objectives in performing professional reference checks can go a long way in encouraging job candidates to provide viable reference contacts. Further, expanding professional reference sources to include individuals associated with volunteer work, committee membership, and professional organizations can open the door to great feedback on history, skill set, and professional reputation. Additionally, most job applicants with some tenure in their field have direct work-related resources who can speak directly to their work history and performance, providing your organization and you with details beyond a standard employment verification to make well-informed hiring decisions. 


AccuSourceHR™ Workforce Solutions is a PBSA-accredited national leader in background screening, occupational health services, and substance abuse testing. Our passion is creating outstanding customer experiences and leading organizations to successful, efficient hiring and onboarding processes. We offer expansive background screening services in over 230 countries and territories worldwide to make hiring easier for businesses and their human resource teams. By partnering with AccuSourceHR™, employers can save time, reduce screening costs, and gain a trusted ally in conducting compliant professional reference checks.

Want to learn more about how AccuSourceHR™ can help you further safeguard your business? Email us at for a complimentary program evaluation.