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November 18, 2016


Four Reference Questions You Can’t Ask

By: Adam Townsend, Chief Operating Officer

Reference checks are an integral part of a complete background screening process. Screening procedures like employment history verifications, education verifications, criminal history, and motor vehicle reports (MVRs) are objectively fact-based, but don’t offer much of a human perspective on how an applicant might fit in with your organization.

However, reference checks have certain parameters. Some questions can seem innocuous at first, but the ramifications of asking them in a reference interview can be extreme. Here are a few areas to steer clear of when questioning an applicant’s references:


  • Personal information not pertinent to the job – Any questions involving an applicant’s age,
    nationality, race, religion, or sexuality are off limits. These questions are not job related, and
    asking them can leave a company vulnerable to discrimination claims.

  • Health and disability-related questions – A reference should never be asked if a candidate has
    a disease or disability that would keep him or her from working effectively. Health-related
    information is protected by federal law, and the presence of a disease or disability doesn’t
    necessarily preclude an individual from productive work. Instead, references should be asked if
    the candidate is capable of performing specific functions and tasks.

  • Credit history – Credit history reports are only legally available when necessitated by the job
    position. If an employer’s educated hiring decision requires an employee’s credit history, it can
    be requested. However, there cannot be any questions involving the applicant’s credit history when performing a reference check. Such questions could put the company at risk of failing to comply
    with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).

  • Family ties – An applicant’s marital status and/or family life, including current or planned children,
    have no place in a reference check. If a hiring manager asks about a candidate’s family and ends
    up not hiring the applicant, then the company could be liable in a discrimination claim. An
    employer who is concerned about a candidate needing time off or not being able to work the
    necessary hours may find a safer method in well-scripted questions focusing on time-based
    position expectations.

  • Four Reference Questions You Can’t Ask

    One way to ensure that your reference questions are safe is to have interviews conducted by an FCRA-compliant background screening company like InfoMart. Our reference checks confirm the information provided on an applicant’s resume and gain useful opinions from previous employers.

    We understand the nuances of the FCRA and how important it is to protect your company from possible litigation. We supply speedy, accurate background screening as well as in-depth reference checks, among other services.

    To learn more about the FCRA and its role with the background screening industry, check out this post.

    Which reference questions do you ask when hiring? Share your thoughts with us on social media!

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