Four Reference Questions You Can’t Ask

Tammy Cohen, PHR, SHRM-CP
November 18 2016
Reference checks are an integral part of a complete background screening process. But screening procedures like employment history verification, education verification, criminal history, and motor vehicle reports are objectively fact-based. They 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 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.
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.

About Tammy Cohen

Tammy Cohen, an industry pioneer and expert in identity and employment screening, founded InfoMart 30 years ago. Deemed the “Queen of Screen,” she’s been a force behind industry-leading innovations. She was most recently the first-to-market with a fully compliant sanctions search, as well as a suite of identity services that modernizes talent onboarding. Tammy revolutionized the screening industry when she stepped into the field, developing the first client-facing application and a due diligence criminal search that has since become standard for all background screening companies. Cohen has received national awards and honors for her business and civic involvement, including Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Top 25 Women-Owned Firms in Atlanta, Enterprising Women Magazine’s Enterprising Women of the Year award, the YWCA of Northwest Georgia’s Kathryn Woods Racial Justice Award, and a commendation in the 152nd Congressional Record. To learn more about Tammy, visit

About InfoMart

InfoMart has been revolutionizing the global background and identity screening industry for 30 years, providing businesses the information they need to make informed hiring decisions. They develop innovative technology that modernizes talent onboarding, including a first-to-market biometric identity authentication application and a verified sanctions search. The WBENC-certified company is a founding member of the Professional Background Screening Association, and they have achieved PBSA accreditation in recognition of their consistent business practices and commitment to compliance with the FCRA. The company is dedicated to customer service, speed, and accuracy, and it has been recognized for its success, workplace culture, and corporate citizenship with over 45 industry awards. To Get the Whole Story on InfoMart, please visit, follow @InfoMartUSA, or call (770) 984-2727.

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