Reference Check Guidelines

This document provides best practices to the School of Medicine and Public Health Reference Check Policy.

Who Does the Policy Apply to 

  • As outlined in the SMPH reference check policy, it is a requirement to check references on academic staff, faculty, limited appointees, and university staff hires.  This would include hires through the waiver process. 
  • The policy excludes unpaid appointments, employees-in-training, student assistants, and student hourly employees.  
  • It is recommended to check references on temporary employee hires, but not required. 
  • If the finalist is self-employed, new to the workforce or has an indirect supervisor/manager, the hiring manager must consult with the hiring administrator to determine the most appropriate reference.
  • International employees may be rehired without reference checks when employment ended as a result of their work authorization expiring and work authorization has been reestablished (e.g., H-1B); and the position will have the same supervisor/manager as the original position.  
  • When a UWMF Fellow is a finalist for an SMPH position, reference checks are not required if the current supervisor of the UWMF Fellow is the hiring manager for the SMPH position. Please document this situation in the recruitment file.

*Letter of references/recommendations may be collected in lieu of telephone references for faculty and some staff-level positions. Consult with Hiring Administrator to determine if appropriate.

When to Conduct Reference Checks

  1. Only check references for your top finalist.  If you are undecided or have two or more equally well-matched finalists, explore further ways to screen those candidates before checking references.
  2. Before checking references, notify the candidate that they are the finalist and references will now be contacted.
  3. Verify the employee has listed their current/most recent supervisor as a referee. 
    1. If an employee does not include a former supervisor in the application material, follow up with the employee.
  4. Conduct the reference check before making the verbal offer.

Offers contingent on completion of reference check 

  • It is highly discouraged to make an offer contingent on a successful reference check. Reference checking should be the last step in the evaluation process and completed before extending an offer.
  • Extending an offer contingent on successful reference checks should be the absolute exception versus the rule. If you are making an offer before checking references, reach out to SMPH Recruitment to receive approval.

Techniques to avoid extending offers contingent on completion of reference checks: 

  • Have conversations during the interview stage to ensure the candidate has a clear understanding of the job details (expected salary or range, duties of job, location, reference check process, etc.)
  • Inform the candidate that they are the finalist before checking references 
  • At this point in the recruitment, the candidate should have the information to make an informed decision and the hiring manager should feel confident that the candidate will accept the position.
  • If the applicant asks to delay contacting their current supervisor, honor this request and give the applicant enough time to let their current supervisor know the call is coming.
  • If an applicant asks us not to contact their current supervisor, remind them that reference checking is a step in our screening process, and in order to move forward we will need to contact their references. In addition, during the application process, the candidate is informed that reference checks will be conducted as part of the UW recruitment process.

What Questions to Ask 

Reference Check questions must be job-related and designed to gain insight into an applicant's prior work history, work habits, and behaviors that impact work performance.  Questions must be approved by the hiring administrator if the hiring manager does not use the Staff Reference Check Form or Faculty Reference Check Form.

  • Dos
    • Introduce yourself and explain why you are calling 
    • Ask whether it is a convenient time to talk 
    • Briefly describe the position the candidate applied for 
    • Confirm the relationship between the person giving the reference and the candidate 
    • Verify basic duties such as job title, duties, salary, and dates of employment 
  • Don'ts 
    • Don't request information about race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, or age
    • Don't ask questions that can be answered with "yes" or "no". Be sure that all questions are open-ended and related directly to job performance 
    • Don't ask a reference any questions that you are not permitted to ask the candidate

Where to Save and Upload Documentation

  • Evaluation forms used during the reference check OR a summary of the reference check results may be used as documentation. 
  • The hiring administrator will review the reference check documentation and redact any necessary information that should not be stored in UW-Madison applicant tracking system, TREMS.
  • The hiring administrator will upload the reference check documentation to TREMS using the adding a document to the job card process.
    • For non-TREMS hires (a waiver), save the reference check documentation to the official department recruitment file. 

How to Handle Unsatisfactory Reference Checks

When you receive a bad work reference or bad character reference, there are a few things to consider. First, will you tell the candidate about the bad reference?  Will you consider the candidate for the position? 

Should you consider a candidate with an unsatisfactory reference?

HR should work closely with the hiring manager to determine if an offer should be made after an unsatisfactory reference.  Some things to consider when determining if you should hire the candidate:

  • Who gave the reference?
  • Did the candidate fit the previous workplace?
  • Did you receive multiple bad references?

If further consultation is necessary, please work with the SMPH Employee Relations Team (

Should you tell the candidate?

In most cases, it is not best practice to tell the candidate who gave a bad reference or what they said.  The reference talked to you in confidence, and they expect you to keep their information private.  Instead, explain to the candidate our recruitment evaluation process and let them know based on our evaluation process they will not be moving to the next stage of the recruitment process.   

Who should communicate with the candidate?

It is advised that the Human Resources Business Partner follows up with the candidate after an unsatisfactory reference check.  

Keywords:reference check, guidelines, recruitment, employment, reference check form, documentation, internal   Doc ID:106083
Owner:Jennique C.Group:SMPH Human Resources
Created:2020-09-22 15:46 CDTUpdated:2022-08-13 18:51 CDT
Sites:SMPH Human Resources
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