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Can Employers Request References from Candidates in Certain Roles?

Can Employers Request References from Candidates in Certain Roles?

During the recruiting process, small businesses often have questions about requesting references from candidates. A common question is, can we do reference checks for only certain roles? The answer is yes, as long as you’re not discriminating based on protected classes or characteristics.

For example, you may decide that supervisory roles or positions with access to sensitive information warrant this additional step during the hiring process. As with any reference check, don’t forget to get the candidate’s permission first.

That said, some employers like to have consistent practices across the board to reduce the risk of a discrimination claim. Employees can file claims based simply on the appearance of discrimination, and employers may be held liable even if they didn’t intend to discriminate. In this case, doing (or not doing) reference checks for all roles would be the most risk-averse approach.

If you would like to only reference check certain employee groups, you should consider whether your policies and practices are disproportionately affecting employees who share a protected characteristic (race, sex, age over 40, etc.). If candidates who were rejected after a reference check were all or mostly the same gender, for instance, you’d want to be sure that the reference checks were both a business necessity and that there was no other policy you could implement that would have less of an impact on the protected group.   

Why are References Important?

Speaking to references is a great way to get more information about applicants and to verify the information they’ve provided to you. As a best practice, we recommend getting an applicant’s formal written consent to check their references, but if they’ve provided you with a reference list with names and contact methods for this specific purpose, additional authorization is likely not needed. 

When speaking with references, open-ended questions are often the most helpful—if they are willing and able to answer them. I like to ask whether the applicant would be a good fit for the role and what skills the applicant has that would make them well-suited to it. I also usually ask about any times the applicant needed to be coached and how they responded to feedback.

If a reference doesn’t seem willing or able to answer open-ended questions, you can ask them to confirm employment information that the candidate has already provided (e.g., dates of employment, reason for leaving). In the process, the reference may open up about the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses related to their previous position or about other job-related details. If they don’t, then I recommend asking whether they’d recommend the applicant for your position. Even a simple yes or no answer will speak volumes.

Looking for more HR help? Work with an HR professional today. 

Content provided by Ahola's HR Support Center


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