Best Practices for Conducting Reference Checks

Topics Covered here:

I. Why Conduct Reference Checks

II. Methods for Reference Checking

III. Reference Checks on Current or Former UI Employees

IV. Frequently Asked Questions

Find more information regarding Background Checks (Criminal Background Checks or Credential Verification) by following the link.

I.Why Conduct Reference Checks

Conducting a reference check to obtain information about past performance from supervisors, peers, or other references, is an essential step in the recruitment process. This information assists in the selection process by providing insight into the candidate’s strengths and developmental needs which can also be beneficial during the onboarding process. Hiring without conducting a reference check could lead to institutional liability for negligent hiring if the employee’s past performance, dangerous characteristics, or actions, are deemed to pose a risk.

II.Methods for Reference Checking


SkillSurvey, a cloud-based reference checking software solution, automates the process of receiving confidential feedback from references.  It utilizes job-specific surveys, designed by industrial /organizational psychologists, to gather insight on past performance and critical skills and behaviors, in these six key areas:

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

Reasons to use SkillSurvey

UI Human Resources highly recommends the use of SkillSurvey because it:

  • Is easy to use and provides a consistent approach — for the applicant, the reference, and the recruiter. 
  • Focuses on job behaviors — the survey focuses on job behaviors required for successful performance.
  • Provides timely and higher quality information — average turnaround time is less than two business days; confidentiality improves the quality and reliability of information from the references.

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

Telephone or Written References

If SkillSurvey is not used, references may also be obtained by telephone or email.  Best practice is to use a standard reference format.  Notes taken about the candidate should be factual and objective, omitting opinion and emotion. Notes should be maintained in the recruitment file.   If there is a question or challenge about the recruitment process, those notes may become discoverable in the future. 

III.Reference Checks on Current or Former UI Employees

The University of Iowa is considered to be one employer, so it is acceptable and advisable to obtain information about past performance on current or former employees from UI supervisors.  When a current or former employee is determined to be a finalist, the following process is recommended:

  1. The Search Administrator for the search committee should check the Human Resources Information System (HRIS) for the termination code for a former employee.  Note:  information such as attendance records in the University’s HRIS or other systems; are not to be reviewed.
  2. The Search Administrator will notify the candidate that s/he will be contacting the current or former University supervisor.  This will allow the candidate the opportunity to notify the current or former supervisor if they choose to.
  3. The Search Administrator contacts the current or former University of Iowa supervisor(s).
  4. The Search Administrator will ask for work-related information such as:
    1. Performance,
    2. Discipline, and
    3. Rehire Eligibility.
  5. The Search Administrator will also ask the reason for leaving, especially, if the University termination code in HRIS, is one of the following a) Resignation, b) Misconduct, or c) Unsatisfactory Performance.

For more information on the process for checking references for a contract transfer, see the frequently asked questions below.

The Search Administrator should NOT ask about, nor should the supervisor volunteer, any information about the following:

  1. Participation (complainant or witness) in a complaint/grievance;
  2. Filing of a worker’s compensation claim;
  3. Protected medical leave;
  4. Health conditions;
  5. Disabilities, or other protected class information or;
  6. Other information that is not job related.

If you have additional questions or need guidance, please contact Employee and Labor Relations at or (335-0052) or The Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity at or 335-0705, or The Office of the General Council at 335-3696.

IV. Frequently Asked Questions

Q.  Who should conduct a reference check?

A. SkillSurvey is accessed and administered by Search Consultants or designees in your college/division.  If phone calls or reference letters are used, it is highly recommended that the search administrator conduct the reference check; many legal/ethical issues can arise in the process. See the following Q&A’s for examples.

Q.  When should a reference check be done? 

A.  The most common and recommended time for conducting a reference check is after the interview process and for the top candidate(s).   It can also be done earlier in the process to assist in determining the interview pool or to prepare for the interviews.  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.  In almost all cases, only professional references are requested; these include former or current supervisors, co-workers, clients/customers or anyone who has worked directly and most recently with the applicant,  who can comment on the applicant’s performance.  For new graduates, teachers or 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.  If 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, best practice is request a minimum of three references.

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 or furlough rights based upon a reference, but you need to conduct one to mitigate negligent hiring risk.  In addition, valuable information may be obtained to assist in onboarding. 

Q.  What if reference information that is not job related is received (such as personal information about drug or alcohol abuse, marital status, etc.)?

A.  Only job related information is to be considered, however, some information may be relevant and useful in considering the candidate to mitigate negligent hiring.  Discuss any of this type of personal information received with your Senior HR Leader or Employee and Labor Relations prior to sharing this information with the decision maker.

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

A.  It is not recommended to contact any references not provided by the applicant. For internal applicants, go to the Best Practices for Conducting References on Current or Former Employees section.  If there are individuals you would like to contact that are not listed as references, ask the applicant if you may contact them.  The candidate may 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.  It is not recommended that unsolicited information about the applicant be received.  However, if an unsolicited reference contacts you, it is recommended that you advise them that any information received will be shared with the applicant/candidate. 

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

A.  Checking social media/internet sites is not a substitute for any of the formal reference checking procedures.  If the applicant’s social media presence is directly related to the job duties of the position they are being considered for, it is a best practice to notify the applicant/candidate of your intention to review their social media/internet site(s).  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 in the decision making process.  If information is found that leads to a concern about a decision to hire, consult your Senior HR Leader or Employee and Labor Relations.

Q.  May attendance records (in HRIS or other systems) on a current or former employee be reviewed?

A. No, it is not appropriate to access this information because it may disclose information that should not be considered, such as protected leave absences. You may access information about eligibility for rehire.  You can ask a question such as “Considering only unprotected time off, how you would rate their attendance; would you rate it as average, above average, or below average?

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

A.  Information received from references is one data point used during the selection process.  Look for consistency from reference to reference, with what is documented on the resume/application materials, and with what is observed during 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. Your Search Consultant or Senior HR Leader may also be consulted for additional guidance.

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 on any discriminatory or illegal information.

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

A.  Reference information should be kept confidential.  Reference information should be retained in the recruitment file and not the personnel file. 

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

A.  Yes, if the reference information has been received within the last twelve (12) months, the position is similar, and the reference names are the same.  If the candidate used SkillSurvey and agrees to use the same reference names, contact Human Resources Administrative Services, 335-0056, for assistance.