How do I respond to a reference check email?

November 24, 2022
Mikaella McInerney
How do I respond to a reference check email?

At HiPeople, we’re all about reference checks - just check out previous installments in our series to find the ultimate guide to reference checks, the best employee reference check questions to ask and more. But there’s always more to know! Even if you’re familiar and comfortable with reference check basics, you might still be thrown when an email arrives in your inbox requesting a reference check. 

Depending upon your role and place in the recruitment process, there are lots of different relations you might have with a reference check request email. Maybe you’ve received a request from a new organization hoping to hire one of your current or past employees. Maybe you’re the potential employer seeking to get answers for a reference check email. Maybe you’re a candidate who has just been asked to provide references! In this article, we’ll break down how to respond in each situation. But first, let’s refresh ourselves on the basics…  

What is a reference check?

A reference check is a crucial part of the recruitment process. It offers a chance to verify information a candidate has given their potential employers, as well as the opportunity for past colleagues, managers, peers and even teachers (called ‘referees’) to provide 360° feedback on the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, past achievements and working style. 

The exact content of a reference check may vary depending upon the organization, role and sector. And it’s different from a background check, which helps employers validate details about a candidate, such as their identity, criminal record or financial status.

For a full breakdown, have a look at our guide to what reference checks are and why you should do one.

How to respond to a reference check…

… as a referee!

As you grow in your professional field, it’s probably only a matter of time before you’re asked to provide a reference for a former or current colleague. If you’re in a leadership role, this is even more likely. It might be intimidating at first, but this is an important part of leadership, networking and professional development. Providing a fair and accurate reference check is good not just for the candidate and the future employer, but for you as you establish credibility and seniority in your field.

Here are some things to keep in mind as a referee answering a reference check request email:

  • Communicate with the candidate. You should never offer a reference for a candidate without their knowledge and approval, and it’s best if you can also communicate with the candidate about the role and organization in question. The candidate can help you understand what aspects of their personality and professional accomplishments to zero in on, as well as anything which is not relevant. 
  • Introduce yourself. Even if the employer asking for a reference clearly knows who you are, it’s always a good idea to make it super clear. Give a concise summary of your professional background, your current role, and your relationship with the candidate so that the employer knows where you’re coming from.
  • Share actions, not qualities. It’s easy to describe someone as “smart” or “efficient”. Can you provide concrete examples of how the candidate displayed those qualities to you? It will give the prospective employer a better sense of how the candidate works, and help your candidate stand out amongst the pool.
  • Stay honest, but avoid negativity. If your candidate has weaknesses, try framing them within the context of self-improvement. For example, you might say something like, “Ali had trouble meeting deadlines until we came up with a new time management strategy which involved…” Make sure you tell the truth about why your candidate left (or is leaving) their current role. If you feel the need to provide negative feedback, check with HR and other members of the team first - don’t take it upon yourself to provide a scathing reference with no consultation or thought.
  • Follow your company’s policy. Whenever possible, consult your company’s policy on supplying references. If you’re ever unsure about any element of a reference, check with HR. Remember, a reference reflects on your whole company, and not just the candidate and yourself.  
  • Refuse to answer inappropriate questions. There are some questions you should absolutely not answer, as they can land you in legal hot water. Topics including age, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, children, marital status, disability or ill-health, race or ethnicity, religion, belief or appearance are all known as protected characteristics. In most countries and states there is discrimination law which means you should not speak to any of these characteristics.

… as the potential employer!

As the employer conducting the reference check in the first place, it’s likely that any reference check request emails will be more about clarification, from either the referee or the candidate themselves. Make sure you provide clear and concise information on:

  • What the reference check is
  • Who you would like to receive a reference from
  • What the reference check questions contain
  • The timeline by which you need a reference check returned

For more information, check out our guide to carrying out a candidate reference check.

… as the candidate!

Reference checks are nerve-wracking. They’re a part of the recruiting process that you have less control over and it’s normal to feel anxious. But here are some tips to ensure you respond correctly to any emails requesting a reference check:

  • Be honest. Now is not the time to fake a professional history or ask a friend to pretend to be your old manager. Lies are an unethical way to start a new job and it’s likely you’ll be discovered eventually. Instead, reach out to a former colleague, manager or teacher whom you respect and who you know respects and values you to ask them politely to provide you with a reference check.
  • Be polite. Your referee is doing you a favor by taking time out of their day to provide you with a reference. Make sure you’re appropriately polite in approaching them and grateful in thanking them!
  • Share information about the role. The more your referee knows about the role you hope to fill, the more they’ll be able to offer a tailored reference that speaks to your ability to succeed with this specific role and organization. Give your referee a copy of the job description and share details about what you’d like them to focus on or avoid discussing.
  • Know your boundaries. Sometimes you might not be able to provide the exact referee the employer is requesting. For example, if they want a reference from your current manager but it could put your future in jeopardy if your manager realized you were looking for another job, it’s fair to suggest an alternative. Just ensure that you communicate clearly and honestly.

Ready to move beyond reference check emails?

Let’s face it, reference check emails are hard work from every end, requiring lots of logistics, manual work and data collection. A smarter and simpler solution is HiPeople’s automated reference checks, which ensures you receive verified, benchmarked references at scale.

Book a demo today.