Date Issued:

July 25, 1991

Date Revised:

Jan. 17, 1992


Mar. 29, 1994


Oct. 17, 1997


May 12, 1999


Jan. 11, 2008


Feb. 5, 2020


The purpose of this policy is to provide guidelines on the legal and most effective methods of performing reference checks. Reference checks verify whether the employment and educational background of the person being considered for hiring is consistent with what was learned through the selection process; to determine the best job/person match for the position.


Labor Code Section 432.7 (Prohibitions on asking about arrests)

Civil Service Rule Section IV - Standards and Qualifications for Employment 

Civil Code Section 47(c) (Qualified privilege for providing information in good faith on a need-to-know basis)


  1. Conducting Reference Checks
    1. County policy requires that departments conduct thorough reference checks prior to making any job offers.
    2. The reference check is an opportunity for the appointing authority to obtain information from other sources about the candidate's work history. Additional conversations may lead to other job-related areas to explore for more feedback.
    3. Reference check decisions are based upon official County applications and supplemental information. Examples include: supervisors for positions listed by the applicant on their job application, reference information received from the candidate, official County Personnel files for existing employees, and telephone or written information received via reference inquiries.
    4. The reference check differs from a background investigation. Background investigations apply to certain law enforcement or criminal justice agency jobs. Background investigations are also a structured part of the examination process and are conducted based upon specific requirements of the class that has determined to be a bona fide occupational requirement that the individual pass prior to a job offer being made. (See Personnel Administrative Manual Section IV.8. Background Investigations)
    5. Civil Service Rule IV.B (Applicability of Employment Standards) permits the disqualification of an applicant based upon certain specific factors, after review by and with the approval of the Personnel Director. Departments may request the disqualification of an applicant based on factual information. The department should never take action without the prior approval of the Personnel Director.
  1. Giving Reference Information to Others

    Certain steps must be taken to legally give reference information on employees supervised. The County has a policy to candidly give reference information to other appointing authorities within the County of Santa Cruz and to use specific guidelines in giving reference information to requestors outside of the County.



    Following the selection interviews for any job opening, departments should initiate reference checks on the top candidate for additional information to consider in the hiring decision. References may be conducted on more than one candidate, however, appointing authorities should consider potential consequences.

    The following are guidelines to assist in achieving the most accurate and valuable information through the reference check process.
      1. Non-discriminatory Inquiries

        Just as in the selection process, reference checks should be conducted in compliance with anti-discrimination laws. You cannot probe into race, color, religion, disability, medical condition, national origin, ancestry, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, age (over 40), or veteran's status for purposes of hiring. Therefore, the reference checking procedure should not question reference givers in a manner which would elicit information specifying the candidate's membership in a protected class, disability, medical condition or the like.
      2. Arrest Information
        1. Determining information regarding arrests through the reference check is prohibited by Labor Code Section 432.7.
        2. Certain job classes and positions within the Santa Cruz County system require background investigations. These apply to certain specified law enforcement classes and criminal justice agencies. These are conducted through taking fingerprints and running background clearances through the California Department of Justice (CA DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and through structured background investigations conducted by the department.
        3. The only exceptions to the above, where the hiring agency can ask about arrests are in conjunction with a background investigation, are as follows:
          1. Persons seeking employment as peace officers.
          2. Persons seeking employment for positions in a criminal justice agency. For Santa Cruz County, these are the: Sheriff-Coroner Office, District Attorney's Office, and Probation Department.
          3. Persons seeking employment for positions in the jail nursing unit of Health Services Agency (HSA) regarding arrests for sex offenses specified in Penal Code Section 290, and, if such person has access to drugs and medications, arrests for controlled substance offenses specified in Health & Safety Code Section 11590.
          4. Persons seeking employment in the Information Services Department having access to the Criminal Justice Information System.

      1. Conviction Information
        1. Each candidate offered a conditional job offer is required to respond to questions regarding convictions online or on the hard copy Conviction History Questionnaire. If there is an affirmative response, the candidate is required to provide a detailed explanation of the conviction(s). This information is reviewed by the recruiting analyst and appointing authority (or designee) to conduct an individualized assessment. If the assessment leads to rescission of a job offer, the department must work with the ESD Manager or designee on next steps in order to follow AB1008 provisions.
        2. For positions requiring background investigations, this information is investigated as a part of the examination process (See Personnel Administrative Manual Section IV.8. Background Investigations).

      The critical point in preparing for reference checks is before the selection interview. Carefully review the application for omissions; inconsistencies; periods where employment is not listed (County applications ask the applicant to list employment related to the class); and the like. During the selection interview, ask the candidate to provide the missing information and to explain any gaps. Be sure to ask about current employment since the candidate may have changed jobs since completing the application. You cannot do reference checks unless you have the name of each firm or agency and the supervisor's name and phone number. You will also want to get a good understanding of the candidate's duties and responsibilities in each job. Ask the candidate what duties their supervisor performed and, if applicable, ask what duties the candidate's subordinates performed. This will help ensure a candidate's honest description of his/her own work and accomplishments. In addition, be sure to verify any required licenses (DMV or otherwise) or certificates. This will save time and avoid problems later.

      Before ending the selection interview, be sure to ask the candidate if you can contact the present employer if, on the application form, they have responded "no" to the question, "May we contact this employer?". Explain to the candidate that you cannot complete the selection process without contacting the current and previous employers and the information you have is incomplete. Ask the candidate to help you find a way to contact the current employer. If the candidate insists that the employer not be contacted, inform him/her that this may be a barrier to considering him/her for employment.

      You should obtain a written release from the candidate waiving any liability that the reference giver might have as to defamation, invasion of privacy, or misrepresentations. Such a waiver can be helpful in securing more candid information from the candidate's employers. Use of this form also will help limit the liability of the County. (See form PER3011, Reference Check Waiver, at the end of this manual section.)

      Because of the importance of the selection interview in successful reference checks, the same person who conducts the interview should conduct the reference check.

      Never tell a candidate that s/he has the job if s/he can pass the reference check. This sets up the previous employer, yourself, and the County for possible lawsuits. Instead, tell the candidate that you will make a decision after interviewing all candidates and completing reference checks, and that you will get back to them after you have made a decision.

      Prepare a set of questions to ask. These questions should apply to all candidates that you will seriously consider hiring. You should also include specific questions to help clarify problem areas you may have identified with some of the finalists.

      It is understandable that changes in a work unit occur over time, including the employees, their skills and personalities, and the needs of a department. Nonetheless, consistency in the manner and content of reference checks for similar jobs is an important defense against claims of improper treatment.

      Reference checking should be like networking -- each contact should be able to identify others you can contact. Start with the obvious -- the former employers. In each contact, ask for names of others who worked with the individual and know their work performance.

      Also, consider contacting your counterpart in the previous employer's agency and anyone else you know who may have knowledge or direct you to someone who does.

      In conducting a reference check of a current Santa Cruz County employee, you can contact current and former supervisors without a release from the candidate. This allows you to get candid information regarding candidates work history from other County supervisors/managers. If you have problems receiving candid information from other County departments please contact the Personnel Department.

      Find a way to "break the ice" when you begin your reference check. During the selection interview, you may have gained some insight into the reference's background and interests from the candidate. Use that information here to your advantage. Remember that the person providing the reference is doing you a favor. Keep their interest, be concise, respect their time, and be polite. Start with the basic, simple questions first, including verifying employment dates, types of work performed, titles, compensation, and whom they worked for prior to joining the reference's organization. Then, move on to the more revealing areas.

      Reprinted below from Robert Half's reference checking guide are suggested questions:
      1. How does s/he compare to the person who's doing the job now? Or, what characteristics will you look for to replace him/her?
      2. Would you rehire this person? Why? Why not? 
      3. When there was a particularly urgent assignment, what steps did s/he take to get it done on time?
      4. No matter how good any individual is in the job, there always seems to be some areas that they are better at than others. What are those areas?
      5. Have you seen his/her current resume? Let me read you the part that describes his/her job with your organization. (Stop at each significant point, and ask the reference for a comment).
      6. How well did the individual work with other employees? Did the person have any problems working with others? What kind of people did s/he have problems with?
      7. How you ask questions is important. Do not ask questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no, or leading questions where the "acceptable" answer is obvious.

        Example 1. Instead of asking if X's attendance was okay, ask, "What was X's attendance record? How many unscheduled absences were there in the last year; the previous year?"

        Example 2. Instead of asking if X operated an IBM PC computer, ask, "What computer equipment did X use? For what purpose? With what software? How many hours a day did X use these?"

        It is also suggested that you ask the employer why the candidate left.

        A problem which occurs with increasing frequency is simply obtaining any useful information from other employers. The letter of consent noted previously may help. Another approach that sometimes works is to appeal to the reference giver as a citizen. For example, when trying to find out if the candidate has operated equipment safely, you could stress that the job entails operating equipment on public roads or around the public, and ask the reference giver if s/he wants the candidate operating such equipment around the public. For an accountant candidate, you might ask if the person contacted would be comfortable with the quality of the candidate's work in computing that person's tax bill.

      If the results of a reference check appear negative, you may want to check more references. Make sure you get the additional references to speak to the major points made by the negative reference. Also check the reference's credibility. If some of the positive references know the negative reference (especially if from the same organization), ask if they know of a problem between the employee and the negative reference.

      Never reveal the negative reference directly or specifically, as this may create a problem and a liability.

      You should keep notes as to the questions you asked and the information you obtained in doing reference checks. Make sure that your notes are consistent with the guidelines regarding non-discriminatory inquiries (page 2). It is recommended that you keep such notes for a period of one year.

      If they don't return your repeated phone calls, you may write a brief letter such as the following:

      Good afternoon,

      I've been trying to reach you in connection with an employment reference for Sally Jones.

      We are considering Ms. Jones, but since we consider her work record with your organization to be highly significant, we would appreciate your feedback.

      I'd appreciate a call from you regarding this matter. Looking forward to hearing back from you shortly.



      Copy (cc) the candidate to encourage the reference to respond.

      1. Exaggeration and broad generalizations. Get them to explain and ask for examples.
      2. Hesitation in responding. Response may be skirting the truth.
      3. Inflection in reference's voice. Degree of sincerity.
      4. Body language (if you are conducting a reference person). Typically, your reference checking will occur by telephone. The expression and gestures as the reference responds to questions can be very revealing.


      You have probably heard that employers have been sued for providing untruthful negative information on former employees. You may also have heard that employers have been sued for NOT providing information on former employees who were fired for good cause. While it is a policy of the County to allow managers to provide truthful references for current and former employees, managers and supervisors must proceed with caution in this area to avoid the potential for litigation. In the event a reference is requested for unsatisfactory employees, managers and supervisors are encouraged to contact the Employee Relations Division of the Personnel Department regarding the content of the reference provided. For all references, the following guidelines should be followed: 

      1. ALWAYS verify who is calling for a reference to ensure that it is a legitimate prospective employer.
      2. ALWAYS find out what the key duties and responsibilities of the position the current or former employee is being considered for. This will help you relate pertinent information based upon what you know about the individual in terms of the job duties and demands. Only provide objective truthful information.
      3. If the reference check comes from another County department, DO candidly discuss work performance issues with the other County supervisor/manager. Be honest. If you withhold negative information, you can expect the other department to do the same to you if you are checking references with them. There is no liability for sharing pertinent, truthful information with another manager or supervisor within the County.
      4. Use the guidelines given in Section I on conducting reference checks to respond to reference checks. This will help to focus on work relevant experience and behavior, and avoid identifying the employee as a member of a protected group or expressing exaggerated opinions.
      5. When you provide reference checks to other employers, document the information that you provided. Keep notes as to your specific comments in case a dispute arises regarding the information you provided. Make sure that your notes are consistent with the guidelines regarding non-discriminatory inquiries (see II.A). It is recommended that you keep such notes for a period of one year.
      6. Contact the employee who is the subject of the reference check. Request that they execute an "Authorization for Release of Information/Waiver of Liability for Employment References" (form PER3011) prior to releasing any information. You must also limit the information you provide to objective information that is pertinent to the job. You may obtain a copy of a Release of Information/Waiver of Liability for Employment References from the individual conducting the reference check if s/he has already obtained one from the subject of the reference check.

      Click on the link below for the Reference Check Release/Waiver Form PER3011: