Reference Checks for Staff (Other Than Ministers)

human with a laptop and cell phone

Note: When checking references before calling or hiring a minister, please refer to The Settlement Handbook

Use the following reference check (as well as the background check) guidelines (previously presented as Responsible Staffing) when hiring professional religious leaders and staff, and when recruiting volunteers whose work will put them in close contact with children and persons in vulnerable circumstances.

  1. Only consider persons who have completed an application or questionnaire that includes a year-by-year educational, employment, and military service history going back to age 18. This history should include contact information for the immediate supervisor or other responsible reference for each position, when that is not possible perhaps, other persons, who have known the persons during this time may be identified. For an example of such application see the “Application for Paid or Volunteer Employment” in the Forms section.
  2. Hire, or accept for service in a sensitive volunteer capacity, a person whose employment and educational history and, in the case of ministers and professional leaders, history of service has been verified. In addition, all references should be reviewed and contacted.
  3. Conduct telephone reference checks, which you may wish to precede with letters of inquiry, with educational institutions, previous employers, and other persons that inquire about the individual’s qualifications, performance and conduct. Where appropriate, specifically inquire about whether the reference has any concerns about the person’s potential to harm others, and whether the person has had any prior incidence of inappropriate conduct such as sexual contact with any individual the person was seeing in a professional or congregational context or any individual under age 18.​
  4. All transcripts, letters, e-mail messages, and other documents received, and all notes of conversations conducted as a part of the reference check shall be retained as part of the person’s personnel record if employed or accepted for service. This file shall be kept in a secure location, for example a locked file cabinet accessible only by the board chair and others as authorized by the Board of Trustees.
  5. In all cases, the reference and background checks are to be conducted by the committee or person responsible for making the recommendation to call, to hire, or to accept the service of the volunteer. In most cases, to avoid needless inquiry and unnecessary expense, the background check should only be conducted on finalists. Once the recommendation is made, the results of the reference and background checks are to be delivered to the the appropriate person for retention in files accessible to subsquent supervisors, or destruction.
  6. No such documents received in connection with persons who are not employed or accepted for service shall be retained except as mandated by law; those not so retained shall be destroyed.

Sample Reference Questions

Adapt, as appropriate, if talking with a personal reference versus an employment reference.

Hello. My name is ______. I’m a member of (name of congregation). (Name of candidate) has applied for the position of (name of position) within our congregation. I have the responsibility to contact individuals who know (him / her) to better understand if (he / she) is a good match for the job.

May I ask you some questions?

  1. What is your relationship with (name of candidate)?
  2. How long have you known him/her?
  3. Describe the work for which he/she was responsible?
  4. On a scale of 10 with 10 being the highest, how well did he/she perform in the job?
    Please elaborate, sharing his/her strongest attributes and areas in which he/she could have performed better.
  5. What was/is his/her reason for leaving your employ?
  6.  Would you consider rehiring (name of candidate), if the occasion arose?
    If no, please explain why?
  7. To your knowledge, has he/she ever been accused of any behaviors that would be considered unethical, inappropriate, illegal?
    Please explain:
  8. (Name of candidate) will be working with children. Is there any reason to believe that children would not be safe with him/her?
    If yes, please explain:
  9. How would you describe the applicant’s relationship with others? (If talking with a former employer, you might ask specifically about relationships with coworkers, subordinates (if applicable), and with supervisor.
  10.  Does the candidate have a positive or a negative attitude?
    Please elaborate:
  11.  The position for which he/she is being considered is (elaborate). How well would you expect him/her to perform in this role?
  12. Are there any other comments you wish to make about this candidate?

Frequently Asked Questions

If a previous employer won’t give any information about the person’s performance, what are our options?
You cannot force a former employer to provide you with information. However, you should ask as many questions as possible to ensure that you have explored possible avenues of information. Make a written note of the questions asked even if there is no response. You have fulfilled your responsibility for checking an applicant’s references if you ask the necessary questions, even if the response is not informative.

What should congregations do to keep secure the personnel records of the minister, professional leadership, church staff, and volunteers?
Personnel records, including applications and reference checks, must be maintained in a locked filing system administered by human resources or staff with similar responsibilities. Personnel files should not be generally accessible; an individual must have authorization prior to gaining access to another employee’s or volunteer’s file. Material such as medical records and criminal history documents should be maintained in a locked filing system separate from the main personnel files.

How do we go about reference and background checks when the person has spent significant time abroad?
The mere fact that an individual has spent time abroad does not alter the responsibility to conduct a review of the individual’s qualifications, performance, and conduct. Although the resources for such review may be more limited, background checks should be conducted using the resources reasonably available.

Are there any questions which under federal or state law the committee cannot ask?
General guidelines about impermissible areas of inquiry can be found on the website for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Impermissible areas of inquiry may involve an applicant’s status as a disabled individual (see the EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance on Pre-employment Disability Related Questions and Medical Examinations) or matters such as race/color and national origin. Local anti-discrimination agencies may also provide additional information on permissible areas of inquiry.