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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

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Requesting Written References with the Application Materials

It is within the discretion of the search committee and/or hiring official whether letters of reference are required of applicants. As with other application materials, letters of reference are private data and are to be kept in a secure area. Access to them is limited to search committee members, hiring officials and those involved in monitoring the search process (Equal Opportunity & Title IX and Human Resources).

Reference Checks

Reference checks are a required part of our applicant screening process. They help us to gain information from co-workers and supervisors regarding the candidates past performance in employment settings. Past performance is the best predictor of future performance. If done correctly, you can learn more through reference checks than you can through any other mechanism in the screening process. Conducting reference checks by phone is perfectly acceptable and certainly most economical.

All reference checks must be done using a reference screening form (see sample of phone reference questions). As with other parts of the screening process, the screening forms helps to ensure consistency of treatment of all candidates and provides an easy mechanism for recording information provided and feedback.

The reference screening form should be structured by development of open-ended, behavioral-based, job-related questions. You may ask any question that is not discriminatory and that is related to the job for which the applicant is being considered. Inquiries must avoid eliciting information as to race, color, ancestry, age, sex, sexual orientation, religion, disability, marital status, number of children, (if not substantially related to functions and responsibilities of the particular job in question). Reference screening questions must be reviewed and approved by Human Resources prior to use.

All candidates agree to reference checks when they sign our application for employment. The candidate agrees to allow us to contact those references they have identified, as well as any others we believe are appropriate.

The search committee certainly can and should respect a candidate’s request for privacy regarding their application and be flexible on the timing of when references will be contacted. However, the candidate should be informed that they may not be considered a finalist and no offer of employment will be made without thorough reference checks completed.

It is quite common for some employers to refuse to provide references on candidates. Usually this is a “company policy.” This lack of response cannot and should not be taken as a positive or negative indicator regarding the candidate. Simply find other references to contact that will provide relevant information.

The data collected from a reference check constitutes private data on the candidate. This means it is accessible to the candidate upon request and generally to no one else except those involved in the search and appointment process.  Because data is accessible to the applicant upon request, guarantees cannot be made to anyone who provides a reference that the information will remain confidential.


  1. Draft and send for review the reference screening form with questions to be asked of each candidate.
  2. After the short list of applicants has been determined, the search committee should ascertain with the candidates their continued interest in the job and tell them their references will now be contacted. (Keep time zone differences in mind when placing calls.) It is preferable to avoid the word "finalist" or "semi-finalist" when calling the candidates; emphasize that further information is being solicited at this time to facilitate the committee's task of determining those to receive further consideration. It should be emphasized that the search committee may be calling secondary references as well as primary references and it is prudent to ask if there is anyone the applicant does not want contacted.
  3. One committee member, or sub-group of committee members, should call all references for a given candidate. It need not be the entire committee.
  4. You must advise reference providers of Minnesota's Data Practices Act which provides that information received regarding the applicant must be made available to the applicant upon his/her request, but that otherwise the information obtained is confidential.
  5. It is preferable to call the references and make an appointment for a time during which they are available to talk and not be interrupted. The references may find it useful during this initial call to receive a succinct description of the job and of the University so they may better understand the position and environmental context.
  6. If the reference is not available when you call, ask when you may call back. It is better not to leave a message that the purpose of the call is for a reference on a specific applicant because the privacy of that individual may be violated.
  7. During the phone call to discuss the applicant, follow the reference screening form. The committee-generated list of questions should be used and asked consistently about all applicants. Appropriate follow-up questions are permissible. Responses should be documented at the time of the call.
  8. Keep careful notes of the conversation. Review them immediately after finishing the call and fill in gaps. Waiting may cause important points and impressions to be forgotten.
  9. Listen carefully to the reference. Consider the following: is the reference careful and thoughtful in responding? Are concrete examples provided to back up statements made? Are statements made about matters that the reference has no direct experience or information about? If the reference reports opinions or reactions of others, ask for their names so the information may be obtained directly. The use of voice tones, phrases, indirect answers, incomplete answers, pauses, may be telling. You should probe for further details if this is the case.
  10. The reference check may be closed with a summarizing statement that will evoke specific agreement or disagreement from the reference; for example, it is my understanding that you do not recommend the applicant very highly for the position, or it is my understanding that you do recommend the applicant highly for the position.
  11. Thank the reference at the conclusion of the phone call.

Sample Questions for References (See also Sample Reference Screening Form)

  • How long have you known the candidate? What is/was your relationship to the candidate? e.g. supervisor, co-worker, friend, family member)

  • Tell me about the candidate’s knowledge and experience in [job responsibilities]. Please provide specific examples. (You can ask this multiple times depending on the position requirements.)

  • How would you rate the candidate’s ability to [job responsibilities]? Please describe a situation where you observed them performing this responsibility? (You can ask this multiple times depending on the position requirements.)

  • Tell me about the ability of the candidate to work and collaborate with others (or any other requirement of the position). Can you describe a specific example of their ability to work and collaborate with others?

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate this candidate’s ability to teach effectively (or any other requirement of the position)? If your response is not a 10, what would it take for this person to achieve a score of 10?

  • Describe a situation where the applicant needed to resolve a conflict with a student (or insert any other behavior related to the position) and how they handled the situation. What could they have done better?

  • Would you rehire the candidate? Why or why not?