Fair Hiring Guide

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Topic: Reference Checks

1. Checking References

Always check references, especially from former supervisors, including UC Santa Cruz candidates, before you make a final selection. This is applicable whether the position is being filled via recruitment, non-recruitment, or waiver. Always check more than one reference.

Reference checks are a critical part of the selection process. Reference checks can give you information on how a candidate has actually performed and past performance is the best predictor of future success. In addition, employers have sometimes been found liable for negligent hiring when an employee with a history of violence or other serious problems is hired without a reasonably thorough reference check.

You may check references at any time in the process. When you are unable to distinguish among candidates based on the application materials alone, especially when interpersonal skills or judgment are essential for the job, it may be worth the investment of time to do a reference check on your top group of candidates before you decide whom to interview.

Advising the Candidate

  • As a courtesy, inform candidates before you check references. A candidate's permission is not required except in the case where the candidate has asked that their current employer not be contacted. In this situation you should call and explain that they have progressed to the reference check stage and you are now checking references. If the candidate refuses to give you permission, explain that without this information you may not be able to consider them further.

  • It is legally permissible to contact references other than those provided by the candidate. Again, as a courtesy, inform the candidate that you will be doing this. If the candidate has concerns about a particular reference, you may certainly take those concerns into consideration.

Conducting the Reference Check

  • Job-related questions are the key to a good reference check. You can establish what the candidate’s duties were, how their performance was evaluated, and what strengths and weaknesses were identified.

  • It is a good practice to develop a set of reference questions and use them for each candidate on which you are seeking information.

  • Remember that the illegal questions you cannot use during interviews also pertains to reference checks.

  • After identifying yourself and your reason for calling, describe the job and find out what kind of work relationship the reference has had with the candidate -- the reference's first hand observation of performance is most valuable, and we have a responsibility to evaluate the credibility of the information we receive in the reference check.

  • You may ask about whether the candidate had an acceptable attendance record but may not ask about their use of sick leave, medical leave, or workers’ compensation. Do not discuss a candidate's disability, and ignore any information about disability that is volunteered. If a reference begins to discuss impermissible areas, steer the discussion back to job-related topics.

  • You should check the references of a UC Santa Cruz candidate in the same manner as any other candidate, including contacting current and former supervisors.


  • It is not necessary to advise references of the circumstances under which the information they provide will be disclosed to the candidate. However, do not promise that the information they provide will be kept strictly confidential.

  • Candidates who request information regarding the reference checks you conduct will be told it is not our practice to disclose this information. However, candidates who make formal written requests are entitled to copies of your reference check notes.

2. Internal Candidates

Reference checks on internal candidates:

  • Should always be conducted

  • Provides an opportunity to validate anecdotal or second hand information

  • Hiring Managers and/or search committee members can view the personnel file for UC Santa Cruz internal candidates upon receiving permission from the candidate, or may only view the candidate’s performance appraisals without permission.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

  1. How many references should I check?

    • More than one. If you get inconsistent answers from the first two, you may want to check more in order to check for patterns.

  2. What if you encounter resistance?

    • Some organizations have a policy of not releasing information, but a law in California protects references who provide information unless their comments are untrue, without a valid basis, or given with malice.

    • Try another approach. Ask the reference for advice on how to manage the candidate to bring out their best abilities. If you’re not getting answers to standard questions, try describing your work culture and its unique pressures, so the reference can give a realistic evaluation. For example: “We’re a high volume customer service office. The phones don’t stop ringing, the paperwork is endless, and we’re considering this candidate for a position in our unit dealing with our most demanding customers. Is that a work environment in which they would excel?”

    • Sometimes giving the reference a structure for responding, e.g. “Some people look for new ways to reinvent their job, seek out opportunities and challenges, and assume responsibilities beyond the basic job description. Others adhere strictly to their job duties and don’t do more than the basics. Can you tell me where this candidate fits on that continuum?”

  3. What if a reference won’t give any real information?

    • If a reference refuses to cooperate, put it in perspective. If other employers are giving rave reviews and one supervisor refuses to provide information, the silence shouldn’t necessarily disqualify the candidate. However, if a string of past supervisors are refusing to share information, this should raise a flag. If the flag is raised, ask for more references so you can assess patterns between them, or call some of them back and probe for more information.

    • If you cannot get good reference checks on a candidate, you may also (1) inform the candidate you have been unsuccessful and will not be able to consider them further, (2) ask the candidate to encourage their references to participate, and/or (3) suggest the candidate sign a release to permit references to speak to you.

  4. What if a reference check reveals negative information?

    • You may choose to inform the candidate that you received negative information and give them a chance to refute it, although this is not required.

    • Don’t rely on information from the reference if it is not based on personal knowledge and which may be no more than secondhand information or unsubstantiated rumor.
  5. Can I use negative information that a reference check has given me in confidence?

    • The only way to keep information completely confidential is not to record it, and then it is problematic to use it. Don’t make a hiring decision on information you cannot verify. If you are unable to verify the information, you should contact Staff Human Resources Employee Relations for advice.

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