How to Train Your Staff to Conduct Quality Reference Checks

Tammy Cohen, PHR, SHRM-CP
March 15 2016

Reference checking is an investigative technique for employment  verification using applicant-supplied information about professional qualifications. References can be a useful source of information about a candidate’s potential or ability, and well-trained interviewers are better able to collect details that can contribute to a hiring decision.

Background screeners, company leaders, and Human Resource professionals are responsible for collecting information on potential candidates that is used to make hiring decisions. This information is often sensitive in nature, and every detail has the potential to impact an individual’s livelihood.

Protecting consumers was the driving force behind the creation of federal regulations such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA). As information collectors, it is our responsibility to ensure that all the information we report has been vetted and verified to ensure maximum accuracy. Failure to do so could cost someone a job opportunity; it’s important to get it right.

Ill-trained interviewers also have the potential to negatively impact clients and business. Reporting inaccurate consumer information can lead to costly legal issues for both, and many FCRA lawsuits have been filed in recent years due to improper background check procedures or unlawful hiring decisions made as a result of consumer reports.

Reference check training during employment verification must be a top priority for background screening providers, human resources professionals, or anyone who will conduct reference checks. Well-trained staff will conduct better quality reference interviews, and provide better quality information that supports employment decisions.


4 Crucial Lessons to Teach Staff that Conduct Reference Checks for Employment Verification

1. Collect Quality References

Reference interviewers who directly interface with candidates or employees should make every effort to collect relevant references who will contribute to a comprehensive view of the person under investigation. Family members and friends who haven’t worked with the applicant or employee may provide biased perspectives about personality and nothing about work habits or attitudes.

Third-party reference interviewers who work for background check companies or other Consumer Reporting Agencies (CRAs) are usually provided with a list of references to contact and do not have a chance to request any particular kind of reference from the applicant. Review references before passing them along to an interviewer to ensure some of them are previous managers or leadership.

Remember that if you don’t tell your candidate or employee the kind of reference you need, your reference check vendor may contact you for additional references or, even more frustrating, provide you with poor quality results.

“I’ve called references only to learn they’d never worked with the applicant,” said InfoMart Content Specialist & former Verifications Analyst, Courtney Gifford. “Requesting additional references can add to a report’s turnaround time, so getting quality references up front definitely speeds up the process. My clients want employment verification information, not a mother’s assurance that her child would make a fine worker.”

2. Prioritize and Practice Effective Time Management

A reference may intend to sing praises about a candidate or employee, but he or she is also taking valuable time out of his or her day to talk about someone else. Interviewers should begin contacting references as soon as possible since the contact may be too busy to talk on a first attempt. Interviewers should only reach out once a day; never badger an informant.

Even though interviewers may hurry through calls to try to finish verifying applicants as fast as possible, they should remember that other people don’t work on their schedule and they may have to wait until the references are available. They may also have to request additional references depending on response, or lack of, so patience is a good skill to teach and to practice.

At InfoMart, we usually make 3 attempts to contact a reference, either by phone, fax, email, or a combination of those, before alerting our client that we were unsuccessful in reaching the contact. The client then has a chance to request additional references or be satisfied with what reference interviews have been collected.

3. Professionalism

References are valuable sources of information about potential candidates, so all interactions should be professional. Don’t ask about age, race, sex, religion, marital status, or national origin, and ignore any answers that contain such protected information.

Interviewers should be polite when introducing themselves and their company. They should also be respectful of the reference’s time by asking if he or she is available to answer some questions about the candidate or employee for employment verification purposes.

Interviewers should try to establish a rapport with the reference when possible to facilitate a more open information exchange. They should ask open-ended questions and do most of the listening as they collect what is needed to make the right employment decision.

4. Confidentiality

A company could be legally responsible for an employment reference provided by one of their employees. Unsubstantiated negative references could be brought to court under defamation or discrimination charges, so references may decline to answer questions and cite company policy and/or confidentiality as the reason for their refusal. These individuals often opt only to verify prior employment details such as position, term of employment, and salary.

Impress upon your interviewers that they should never share details of the reference with anyone for whom the report was not intended, such as their coworkers or other references. A reference may ask about what other people have said about the candidate or employee, but sharing this information violates privacy and confidentiality rules.


Employment Reference Check Companies

Potential legal consequences and Human Resources time constraints have encouraged market growth for third party companies that offer employment reference checking, among other screening services.

Employment data collectors usually offer professional and/or personal reference checking as part of a package with other services. However, an experienced provider like InfoMart will offer customization wherever possible. If all you want is reference checking, we won’t pressure you to buy a bunch of other services as well.

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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