What questions can an employer ask a previous employer about an applicant?

As an employer what questions can I ask an applicants previous employer about their job performance and what not?

I’m not asking for legally binding advice I just want a general idea of what to ask and what is not kosher to ask.

I have to do this for the first time and I want to be as professional as possible.

I don’t kno where you are, but here in the UK, I’d suggest that this is one of those occasions where you need to consult a professional.

know dammit!

You can ask pretty much anything you like, but many HR departments will only confirm start date, end date, and title. Saying bad things about ex-employees may open the company up to liability, so most will simply give the business equivalent of name, rank, and serial number.

I’m in the states. I want to ask good questions to get a good idea about the applicant but withhout purposefully illiciting negative comments which could open up the previous employer to liable.

I managed to get a peak at the comany I used to work for’s list of questions to ask previous employers. Most of them were just verifying information and such, but the only question that really sticks out is “would you hire this person again.”

I believe the questions are “dates of employment, position title and if the person is eligible for rehire”.

If the previous employer gives a good recommendation, and the employee turns out to be unacceptable, they are open to litigation from the new employer. Also, the absence of good comments could be considered to be a negative comment. Thus the policy described by the other responders.

I did similar work for a trucking company in Joplin, Missouri. I would telephone Applicant A’s previous employers to try to get information out of them about the applicant. Legally, all they were required to tell me were dates of employment and whether or not the applicant was eligible for re-hire. Some companies, I was lucky to get that out of them (even though the Department of Transportation required them to give that information, if asked).

Other companies gleefully told me everything I wanted to know, positive or negative.

Most, however, told me only the bare minimum, for fear of being opened up to a lawsuit.


So I’m curious about this liability fear. How justified is it?

What is the legal basis for a successful lawsuit, (assuming the previously employing company didn’t make any untrue statements)?


Are there examples of such successful lawsuits?

c’mon HR and employment law types, help me out here.

If you do get to a previous supervisor/manager that is willing & able to answer some questions beyond start date & end date, here are some questions I’ve used:

Do you have any suggestions on how to get the best out of this candidate?

Are there any type of jobs/activities you would not assign to this candidate?

They tend to get more useful info than the simple “Do you recommend this person
for this particular job?”

I’d stay away from asking questions you’re barred by Federal law from asking the candidate directly (“Do you know if she’s pregnant?” “Do you know how old he is?”) . Apart from that - YOU can’t get in any trouble for asking a question, though the person you’re talking to may get in trouble for answering them.

Typical questions I ask:

What relationship did you have with this person? (boss, peer, subordinate, etc.)
When did you work with them?
What did they work on?
Why did they leave?
What are their greatest strengths?
What are the areas they could improve in?
Would you hire/work with this person again? (everyone says yes, but I ask it anyway)

Truth is, there’s really no recourse if someone gives you a misleading reference. It’s not like you’re going to sue them if an employee doesn’t work out.

I don’t really put much stock in references; it’s a rare person that can’t come up with 3 people who will say something good about them. The main value I get from them is to learn a little bit more about problem areas an employee has so I can watch out for them.

muldoonthief wrote

Yes. Don’t ask yes/no questions. Keep them open-ended, and ask follow-on questions to get more detail.

I am curious to know why you think this this is true. I would think that if the candidate is suing because he was not hired that questions asked in the hiring process could come back to haunt you in the same way as questions asked a candidate directly.

I recently told someone who asked if I would hire someone again, “Not if somebody had a gun to my child’s head”. Haven’t gotten a supeona yet;)

Which is why I said “Don’t ask questions barred by Federal Law”. If it’s not an illegal question, and it’s one I’d ask in an interview, why wouldn’t I ask a reference the same question?

Maybe I should have said you can’t get in any trouble for asking a relevant question. Obviously something like “Did the young female applicant seem sexually attracted to authority figures?” would be a bad idea too.

I once got a call for a reference regarding an employee who had been terrible. I didn’t want to create a legal exposure by saying anything negative, but I didn’t want to lie, either. What to do?

“You would be lucky to get him to work for you.”
“I cannot recommend him too highly.”


what I dont understand is why companies (UK) will often only ask me for references after they have appointed someone.

You did say that but you also said that he could ask anything he wanted without fear of problems.