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Reference Checking: Everything You Need to Know About the Process

“It’s more important to hire people with the right qualities than with specific experience.”

- J. Willard Marriott, American entrepreneur

Many employers use reference checking as part of the hiring process. We can all agree it’s a pretty standard occurrence. It’s basically when an employer contacts the job applicants, previous employers. This is usually done to get a better idea of who the candidate is, their past work experience and other factors to verify if they are suitable for the offered position. Having said that, despite its standard presence across the various industries, the very definition of a reference check has changed somewhat over the years.

The way people perceive it, approach it and handle it has morphed into something more inclusive. As with all things that change with the needs of the market and society around it, the reference checking process has become a refined tool, rather than just another box to check.

So there are two basic levels to a reference check. It can either be a surface-level reference check or an in-depth one. With the former, it’s more an exercise to verify dates of employment, job titles, qualifications and other factual information. When you consider the latter, it’s more detailed as the name suggests.

Reference will face a line of questioning that is similar to that which the applicant faces. As mentioned before, this is more a traditional reference check, where employers try to get an idea about who the person behind the resume is. They dig into the applicants’ strengths, weaknesses, skills, teamwork abilities and so on, to see if they are a good fit for the job.

Canada has key reference checking laws in place
Canada has key laws and acts that regulate what information flows and how it flows during the reference checks.

Reference Checking Vs. Background Checks

If you’re wondering if the two are the same thing, the answer is kind of, but not really. The major differentiator, in this case, is their focus. Reference checks are meant for providing insights into the candidate’s ability as an employee while also doing the surface level verification. However, background checks are purely meant for credential verification purposes.

Another difference is that where a reference may only focus on the personal and professional reference you provide, a background check will go into your employment history, credit history, criminal records and so on.

Laws Regulating Reference Checking in Canada

Different countries have different privacy laws and regulations when it comes to background checks. However, when you take the case of Canada there are two specific laws that you need to make note of. One is the Privacy Act and the other is the PIPEDA (Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act) at the federal level. Keep in mind that there are also laws at the provincial level.

These laws are in place to regulate the organization’s right to receive information during reference checks. As per said laws, the candidates in question have to give written consent to have the reference checking conducted by the relevant employers.

Organizations also have to store the information from the reference checks they do, for at least a year. At the same time, candidates should have the opportunity to access their information. Apart from these federal laws, there are also Human Rights Legislation Acts in Canada that impact reference checking. The Canadian Human Rights Act as well as the Provincial and Territorial Human Rights Laws, prohibit employers from asking questions in certain areas during a reference check or interview.

These areas include race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, marital status, family status, disability, genetics, criminal records. Asking questions about these topics could be discriminatory and the company could get in trouble. Fair to say, there are many do’s and don’ts when it comes to reference checks in Canada.

"You don't hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills."

- Simon Sinek, Author

The Right Way to Handle Reference Checks

All things considered, it would be a fair assumption to say that reference checking plays an important role in the hiring process. Given the weight it carries, it makes sense that there are so many laws that regulate it at so many levels. At the end of the day, it should be done right.

For one thing, consider doing the reference check at the beginning of the hiring process as opposed to the end. This will save everyone’s time by eliminating any doubt about whether the candidate in question is suitable for the recruitment process or not. Another thing you should keep in mind is the format. A common format is important given you will be checking in on candidates from different walks of life. So, to keep things unbiased, objective, and fair, you need to have a set number of common questions that you can apply across the board.

How Candidates Should Apply

The care a candidate puts into the application process, tells a lot about them. When they apply, ideally, they should provide proper references. They should give you at least three former co-workers and supervisors. However, if they are applying for their first job, like a fresh graduate, then the reference information for their college professors or lecturers can suit the purpose of the reference check.

Make sure that you ask for the applicant’s consent before conducting the check. You should try to get it in writing just to be safe. You also need to make sure that the references are willing to stand for the candidate. Take it a step further and advertise this when you make the vacancy public; it will smooth out the process a little more.

These days automated reference checking is becoming more and more popular due to its efficiency capabilities.

automated reference checking is becoming the new trend in the recruitment landscape


Now as we mentioned before, most companies tend to wait till the end of the recruitment process to conduct the reference checks. The best method is to do it before the recruitment process gets started. This thins the crowd and you proceed with only the candidates who will suit your company culture and job profile.

Now onto the actual preparation. Before you start firing away 20 questions, call up the references and find out if they want to stand in as a reference for the applicant. Start with the senior-most reference and work your way down, it’s a professional courtesy. Inform them about the process, the candidate’s application (after getting the candidate’s consent), and get everyone on the same page.

They might agree to do the interview on the spot, or you might have to schedule them for a more convenient time later. The best way is via phone call or email, traditionally speaking, so get that confirmed as well.

Executing the Reference Checking

Finally, the day for the check arrives! You need to confirm that everyone is ready and available. Make sure to inform the reference about the time it might take. Be clear with the information you provide.

Finally, approach it like a conversation. The references are people after all; human beings. So get them relaxed, ease into the conversation, take it one question at a time and take plenty of notes. As good as traditional reference checks are, these days a lot of companies are employing the service of automated reference checking. This is a process that eliminates human bias, reduces time to hire and makes the whole process smoother. As an employer, you should consider this option.