Background Check vs. Reference Check


background check vs. reference check

Once you’ve made it through the interview process, there are typically a couple of final steps that need to happen before you can officially start your new job.

Two of those steps are background checks and reference checks. And while they sound similar they’re actually different and serve different purposes.

To that end, this article is going to break down the differences between a background check vs. reference check and answer related questions about the two topics.

Let’s dive in.

What Is A Background Check?

background check

A background check is a process that a company uses to check a person’s criminal record, employment history, education, and other past activities to help vet the candidate’s viability for a job.

Typically, an HR department will initiate the background check for the purposes of a) validating the claims that somebody made about their background and b) ensuring that there are not any major red flags about the candidate, such as a criminal background that may have gone missed in the interview process.

A background check often happens after a job offer has been made but before a candidate officially starts their position. The reason for that timing is that companies typically pay third party companies, like one of the following, to conduct the background check. Generally, they want to know that they have an accepted offer before investing that money.

What is a Reference Check?

reference check

A reference check is the process of a company calling a list of people that a candidate provided them that can speak to can speak to the candidate’s skills, education, character, and/or other relevant skills for a particular job.

The purpose of a reference check is to provide an independent source to speak to someone’s qualifications and capabilities for the job to which they’re applying. 

Often, a reference check happens shortly before an offer is made to candidates that are seriously being considered for a job. In fact, it’s one of the top signs that a job offer may be coming your way.

For more information on reference checks, take a look at our what is a job reference article.

Background Check vs. Reference Check: What’s The Difference?

what does it mean if they are checking my references

The difference between a background check vs. reference check is that background checks help ensure the candidate is honest and doesn’t have a criminal history. Reference checks provide third party information on a candidate’s ability to do a job.

Background checks and reference checks do serve similar functions, which are to gather independent third party information about a candidates viability for a job. 

However, they gather different information and in different ways.

Background checks tend to be fairly black and white and look to validate the candidates claims about their background and make sure they don’t have an unscrupulous past that may present risk to the employer.

Reference checks tend to be a bit squishier, in that they’re gathering context around people’s past roles that can help paint the picture of whether or not a candidate’s background makes them a good fit for a position.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Checking References Part of a Background Check?

do employers actually check references

While background checks and reference checks both serve to gather independent information about a candidate before they start a job, they are technically different parts of the candidate vetting process.

A reference check is not part of a background check and typically happens after the job interview process but before an offer is made. In my experience, background checks mostly happen after an accepted offer but prior to a candidate starting a job.

Do Employers Check References Before or After a Background Check?

what happens after reference check

Employers typically check references before a background check.

In my experience, references are typically checked after an interview but before an offer. Background checks are typically conducted after an accepted offer but before someone starts a job.

Job offers are typically written to be pending a successful background check so employers have the chance to withdraw an offer if there are red flags in the background check.

The reason that background checks are typically approached that way is because companies generally have to pay for background checks, so only want to do that for candidates that they expect to join the organization.

Can You Lose a Job Due to a Background Check?

frustrated person

Yes, you can lose a job due to a background check.

If a company finds a red flag such as a criminal history that they’re not comfortable with, or that you lied about something on your resume, they are fully within their rights to pull a job offer and often do.

Can You Lose a Job Due to a Reference Check?

can a bad reference cost you a job

Yes, you can lose a job due to a reference check.

While I have personally never not offered a candidate due to a reference check, I have had managers that have decided not to make an offer to a candidate due to red flags that came up during reference checks.

So, yes, it is very possible for a bad reference to cost you a job.


A background check vs. reference check. They’re similar in their function, but provide different pieces of information to help vet a candidate for a job.

Hopefully, this article has been helpful in enabling you to understand the differences between a background check vs. reference check.

Good luck on your job search!

About the author

Dan Slocum

Dan is the founder of Best Fit Work and is a business professional with over 10 years of experience. He has been a hiring and people manager on multiple occasions, and has also gone through the hiring process himself at a variety of different companies. Dan writes to share content, tools, and resources to help people discover and thrive in their own best fit work.

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