What Types of Professional References Should Employers Check?

Checking professional references is an essential piece of the puzzle when onboarding new employees. A good or bad reference can make or break an employer’s impression of a job applicant.


Which professional references are important to check when determining whether an employee is a good fit, though, and which aren’t as valuable? Of course, not all references are created equal, and a reference check shouldn’t be overlooked even in transitional times like these.


Previous Employers

Starting with the most recent, previous employers are typically the first professional reference most prospective employers will want to target when working through a reference list. A previous employer will shed light on that potential employee’s most recent work history, including their work ethic in that last position.


Some employees will include additional employers that go further back. Target the most recent first, and determine from there whether you need additional information from older employers. Try to stick to employers who are most relevant to the position an employee is applying for, as it’s the best way to determine their qualifications.


Keep in mind that potential employers may be hesitant to include current employers on their reference lists, mainly if they are still testing the waters on a change in employment. In that case, an employer may need to dive into current colleagues or save a reference check with a current employer once an official offer is made.


Former Colleagues

You risk talking to former colleagues who are more friends to a potential employee than worthy of a professional reference. Still, former colleagues can add additional color to the communication you’ve had with previous employers. 


Former colleagues may also speak to an employee’s ability to work as part of a team and any contributions they made in group settings. These kinds of conversations can enlighten an employer to a potential employee’s soft skills, like communication, collaboration, and problem-solving abilities, even though they may feel more casual.

A woman conducts a professional reference check for a job applicant.

Professional Mentors

Recent graduates will often include educational references such as teachers, advisors, and former professors or professional mentors in their intended field when providing reference lists


If a candidate lacks work experience, talking to their mentor will help you gain insight into their work ethic. Educational references and experienced mentors should then not be discounted in reference checks.  


Personal References 

Some jobs will ask for personal references on top of a professional reference check, and some prospective employees will include personal references whether they’re asked to or not.


Those personal references may include coaches, volunteer supervisors, religious leaders, or even neighbors if that employee has been involved in their community. Whether an employer should spend much time delving into personal references may depend on the job and the skills a job is looking to fill. Generally, personal references are not as valuable as professional reference checks.


Friends & Family Members

Family members shouldn’t appear on reference lists, but if they do, an employer shouldn’t spend much (if any) time communicating with a prospective employee’s family members. But, again, the conflict of interest is apparent, and it will be difficult to know whether what you’re hearing is accurate or valid.


Friends may sometimes appear on a list in a professional capacity, however. For example, former colleagues who are also friends with that employee may offer valuable information on top of conversations already completed with former employers.


Professional Reference Check Questions

Before you call a professional reference, prepare a series of questions to provide insight into a prospective employee. When onboarding new employees, the importance of factual data is clear. You’ll want to add to what you already know about an employee from their resume and cover letter and uncover any red flags before the hiring process is complete, if possible.


When speaking with a candidate’s previous employer, ask questions that verify their employment, such as start and end dates. You may also want to ask about the candidate’s role at the workplace and the reference’s relationship with them.

Here are a few additional questions that may help determine whether an employee is a good fit:


  • What were the employee’s professional strengths?
  • What were the employee’s professional weaknesses?
  • How would you describe the employee’s dependability and work ethic?
  • What would you describe as one of the employee’s most impressive accomplishments?
  • Do you believe the candidate is qualified for this job? 


Get Help with the Onboarding Process

Who should conduct professional reference checks on job applicants? We know the importance of references and identifying good contacts on a reference list from a prospective employee.


A full-service background check company like DataCheck can help you streamline your employee onboarding process. We provide support around identifying critical components of a comprehensive background check and prioritizing the pieces of your screening process that matters.