Reference Check Expectations

Conducting a reference check is an essential step in the recruitment process.  It assists in candidate selection by obtaining information from supervisors, peers, or other references that demonstrates past performance.  Additionally, reference information may provide insight into the candidate’s strengths and developmental needs that will assist in new hire onboarding.  We also want to minimize our risk for negligent hiring which means that if we do not attempt to determine fitness for employment and the employee’s incompetence or dangerous characteristics cause an injury, liability may incur. 

UI Human Resources highly recommends use of SkillSurvey, a survey reference system that that is designed by Industrial/Organizational Psychologists to provide insight by gathering input from multiple references on past performance of critical skills and behaviors in:

  • Professionalism
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Problem solving and adaptability
  • Personal value commitment
  • Managing others
  • Leadership

SkillSurvey can be used for all regular P&S, SEIU, and Merit staff positions.  To use SkillSurvey, please contact your College/Division Search Consultant.

Reasons to use SkillSurvey

  1. Ease of use for the applicant, the individual providing the reference and the recruiter. The tools to input references and the survey format encourages timely reference completion.
  2. Average turnaround time for a completed reference check is less than 2 business days.
  3. Survey confidentiality increases the quality of the information on the applicant, helping to confirm and clarify applicant information.
  4. The competencies defined for the position are assessed as the questions on the survey focus on job behaviors required for successful performance.
  5. The reference information identifies areas for employee development that can be used in the onboarding process.
  6. Standardization of process complies with State and Federal regulations and provides a consistent approach to conducting references.

If SkillSurvey is not used or there is a need for a follow-up phone call, use of a standard format of questions is a best practice.  An example of a reference format is available.  Notes taken about the candidate should be factual and objective, omitting opinion and emotion.  If there is a question or challenge about the recruitment process, those notes may become discoverable.  Regardless of the process used to obtain references, all reference materials must be retained in the recruitment file, not the personnel file. 

Common Questions Regarding Reference Process:

Q.  Who should conduct a reference check?

A. SkillSurvey is accessed and administered by P&S Search Consultants or designees in your college/division.  If phone calls or reference letters are used, it is highly recommended that an HR person conduct the reference check as there are many legal/ethical issues that can arise in the process as noted in the questions below.

Q.  When should a reference check be done? 

A.  Most references will occur after the interview process on the top candidate(s).  It can also be used when additional clarity is needed to define the applicant pool or to prepare for an interview, by reference checking all who are being considered.  At whatever point the reference check is done, the candidate needs to be informed in advance of the reference check.

Q.  Who should be considered as an appropriate reference?

A.  .  Professional references, supervisors, co-workers, clients who have worked directly and recently with the employee and who can comment on performance should be requested.  For new graduates, teachers/professors who have observed their work on a project, internship, etc. or others such as a volunteer program leader who has observed performance may be used.  SkillSurvey has defined guidelines about appropriate references.

Q.  How many references should be requested?

A.  In using SkillSurvey it is recommended to ask for five references, two of which are supervisors/managers.  Obtaining a reference from a current supervisor/manager may best be done when there is an offer pending.  When not using SkillSurvey, three references are usually requested.

Q.  Should a reference check be done on AFSCME or SEIU contract transfers or staff who are exercising lay-off or furlough rights?

A.  You may not deny a contract transfer or the exercising of lay-off rights based upon a reference but you may need to conduct one to mitigate negligent hiring risk.  In addition, valuable information may be obtained to assist in onboarding.  Please note that for Merit staff who are seeking a contract transfer, you can check all references except the current job, unless the position is in an area such as health care where regulations require reference checking prior to hire.  

Q.  What if reference information that is not job related, such as drug or alcohol abuse, absences due to need to care for a relative, or divorce is received?

A.  Job related information is what you need to consider, but some information may be relevant and useful in considering the candidate to mitigate negligent hiring.  Discuss your concerns with your Senior HR Leader or UI HR.

Q.  May other people who have worked with the applicant but are not listed as references be contacted?

A.  It is wise to only use the references provided by the applicant. That certainly does not mean that if there are other individuals that you know of who would, very likely, have good information, that you could not go back to the applicant and ask them for permission to contact them. They could have a legitimate reason why they do not want that individual used as a reference.

Q.  What should be done if an unsolicited reference is received?

A.  Before receiving the information, please advise the reference that this contact will be shared with the applicant/candidate.  If you accept the offered information, ask, “How do you know the candidate?  Can you give me information regarding job-related criteria?” Ask them the same questions you ask other references.

Q.  May social media be used to learn about the applicant/candidate?

A.  Checking social media/internet sites is not a substitute for conducting reference checks or a formal background check if one is required by the position.  If there is a decision to utilize social media/internet sites to evaluate applicant/candidate’s qualifications, it is a best practice to notify the applicant/candidate of your intention.  Provide the applicant/candidate with information about what sites you plan to check and allow them a defined time period to remove identifying protected class information about race, religion, creed, color, age, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, veteran status, or genetic information.  Any protected class information obtained should not be used as part of the decision making process.  If information is found that leads to a concern about a decision to hire, confer with University HR.

Q.  May information about a current or former employee such as attendance record that resides in HRIS be checked?

A. No, that is not appropriate as you may access information about FMLA or other items that should not be considered.  Additionally, it gives you information about internal candidates that you will not necessarily have about external candidates, so it is an unfair comparison.  You can access information about eligibility for rehire.  You can ask a question such as “How would you rate attendance? Would you say it is average, above average, or below average, compared to the rest of the people on staff performing the same work?"  SkillSurvey has questions related to dependability.

Q.  How should reference information be evaluated and used in the selection process?

A.  References are one data point to be used in selection.  Reference information should be consistent from reference to reference and consistent with what is documented on the application/resume and what was observed in the interview process.  If reference information is not consistent, discuss the inconsistency with the candidate, trying to find out what may have caused the inconsistency.  Judgment will be needed to balance reference information with interview information.  SkillSurvey provides guidance about the reference report.

Q.  Can the results of a reference check be used as a rationale to not hire someone?

A.  You can use objective job-related references as a reason not to hire.  If questioned by the candidate or a third party agency, we must demonstrate that our decision-making was based upon the applicant’s experience and background not any discriminatory or illegal information.

Q.  What is expected if an employee or a candidate asks to see the references?

A.  References should be retained in the recruitment file as opposed to the personnel file as an individual has access to their personnel file.  References should be kept confidential unless there is a previous conversation or written understanding from the person providing the reference that they agree to share the information.  SkillSurvey does have the candidate sign a release form that is shared with the reference.  The reference is informed that the information they share is confidential.

Q.  May a reference done for one position be used if the candidate is considered for another similar position?

A.  Yes, if the reference is less than one year old, the position is similar, and the references the candidate would use are the same.