7 Things You Need to Know About References

7 Things You Need to Know About References

by Kerry Scott on 26 October 2009


  1. Employment verification and reference checking are two different things. Employment verification means contacting your former employers and verifying your title, salary, and dates of employment.  Checking references means calling people and asking whether you were a good employee.  Nearly every company I’ve worked for conducted employment verifications, but only a third or so checked references.  Some people feel that it’s a waste of time to call the people you list on your application, because of course they’re going to say nice things about you.  Duh.  That’s why you listed them.  Occasionally you get one who goes rogue, but not often.
  2. Calls don’t mean you’re getting the job. Lately I’m hearing about more and more instances where companies are checking references for two or more finalists, instead of just the one they intend to hire.  I think this stems from the idea that there are so many good candidates out there that employers can now be extremely choosy, and can take their time in making a hire.  I had a company recently call me about someone who worked for me in my last job.  The call was about 25 minutes long, and they apparently called her other three references as well…so they invested about two hours.  In the end, they picked their other finalist (which is their loss, because this employee was one of the best I’ve ever had, and they are idiots for not hiring her, because she is a star).  Be excited when you hear that they’re calling your references…but not too excited.
  3. They can call anyone they want, whenever they want.  I chuckle when I hear candidates saying something like, “They called so-and-so and asked about me.  Isn’t that illegal?”  Of course not.  It’s not illegal to ask someone about you.  Nobody needs permission to say, “Hey, you worked with Joe, right?  What’d you think of him?”  That release you sign on the back the application is designed to protect the reference-giver, not the reference-checker.  It’s mostly used for the employment verification, not the references (because most companies aren’t going to give out your dates of employment/title/salary without written permission from you).  Since the references you give them are almost always people you’ve lined up to say nice things about you, any smart hiring person is going to want to use her own contacts to find out more about you.  The higher up the position is, the more likely they’re going to ask around.  If you haven’t sucked or treated people poorly, you probably have nothing to worry about.
  4. They can ask anything they want. Companies and individuals can decide what they want to answer…but the hiring company can ask anything.  It’s illegal to use the answer if the answer indicates your membership in a protected class (religion, national origin, etc.), but it’s not illegal to ask.  The person giving the answers can also say anything, as long as it’s true.  If you got fired, they can say so.  If you were late 32 times in six months,  you can say so.  If you quit by telling the supervisor to f-off and throwing your ID badge at him (true story), they can say so.  Negative references are not illegal, as long as the information is true.
  5. Bad references are not as common as you think. I occasionally hear from people who think the reason they haven’t gotten a job is because their former boss is badmouthing them.  It’s possible that this happens, but I have never, ever seen a case where a former supervisor  has preemptively called around and said that an employee was bad.  Never.  I’ve had bad references occasionally, but they’ve never been unsolicited.  The bad references are not super common either, because nobody wants to get sued, and even if what they’re saying about an employee is true, to have to prove it in court is an expensive, time-consuming venture.  Bad references happen, but they’re not nearly as common as people think.  It’s far more likely that you didn’t get the job because there was another candidate they thought was a better fit.
  6. You need to make sure your peeps are reachable. It’s up to you to know how best to reach your references.  That means you need to check in with them BEFORE you hit the reference stage, and ask them how best to reach them during the next couple of weeks (cell phone?  work phone?  email?  any vacations coming up?).  You should also let them know the name of the company and what the job entails, so that they recognize the call when it comes.  I don’t typically answer my home phone if I don’t recognize the number, but I will dive over my kids to pick it up if the caller ID shows that it’s a company that has recently interviewed someone for whom I’m providing a reference.
  7. The web is a reference. I’m pretty sure everyone who reads this blog is smart enough to know this already, but just in case:  employers will Google you.  If they can look at your Facebook page, they will.  They’ll read your tweets.  Whether employers SHOULD do this or not is a separate issue, but trust me, they do.  If you’ve said stupid things, stop saying them, and delete them where you can.  Use the privacy settings (especially on Facebook).  Make sure the username for your favorite amateur porn site isn’t the same as the username for your email (another true story).  The web is a bad place to say and do things you don’t want potential employers to know.  You don’t need to hide who you are, but you do need to exercise some common sense.

DISCLAIMER: This is not legal advice.  I am not a lawyer.  You should only take legal advice from real lawyers whose real lawyerhood you have verified with the Bar Association in your state.  Don’t take legal advice from from some blog you found on the internet.  Duh.

Photo by Serge Melki

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Sabrina October 26, 2009 at 10:00 am

Regarding number 6… first off it takes a lot longer than a couple of weeks from when I fill out an application to when an employer maybe possibly is checking references. So really the question is “Where will you be in the next 4 to 6 months?” Second, 99% of places I do apply at and who ask for references never even reply beyond the form e-mail that’s auto generated. I’d feel like an ass and a loser if I gave a heads up to my references for every one of those jobs. Even more so than I already do.

Kerry Sandberg Scott October 26, 2009 at 10:12 am

I would only give them a heads up after you’ve finished the interview process completely and it looks good…not every time you apply. Otherwise, yeah, you’d be calling them nonstop.

That said, I think people understand now that there are going to be false alarms. So many of my friends and former employees/colleagues are looking for jobs now that I get emails all the time saying “you might get a call” (and sometimes I DO get a call, but more often I don’t). Everyone with a brain is more understanding now than they would be in a regular market.

It can be a good way to keep in touch with your contacts and keep them informed on your job search; the more you remind them that you’re looking, the more likely it is that one of them remembers you when they hear of a lead. In a good job market, you might feel embarrassed to still be looking…but trust me when I tell you that there are LOTS of really, really great people out there who have been looking for a very long time. The stigma is vanishing, because everyone knows so many good people who aren’t finding jobs quickly.

Sabrina October 26, 2009 at 11:20 am

Unfortunately all of my contacts live in another city, no one ever hears of jobs where I am. Ho-hum. :( This economy sucks.

Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com October 26, 2009 at 1:18 pm

I won’t even give reference contact information until I am sure of you extending me an offer (FT or consulting). All of my references are executives. They are OK with me giving out their cellphone numbers, because they know I will only allow someone to bother them if it is a solid opportunity.

Market might not be the best, but I am not going to hurt my relationships with those people for an employer who does not respect my references as much as I do. I just don’t sacrifice long term for short term benefit.
.-= Apolinaras “Apollo” Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com´s last blog ..Random lessons from 12 years in startups =-.

Kerry Sandberg Scott October 26, 2009 at 1:34 pm

I’d agree that when possible, you shouldn’t give out your reference info until you’re at the reference-checking stage.

However, for people applying for lower-level jobs (or even higher-level jobs that require an online application), this can be tricky. Many employers won’t consider you if you refuse to complete the application, and online applications won’t let you move to the next screen without it. Reference are part of just about every application.

Positions in certain fields, like education and government jobs, also require the submission of references with your resume.

I think it’s rare that these folks are actually calling at this early stage…but for many candidates, refusing to give reference until the offer stage just isn’t an option.

But where it IS an option, I’d agree that it’s the best approach.

RunningHorse October 26, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Sometimes references are checked between a first interview and the second. If you don’t give out your references when asked, you’ve cut off your nose to spite your face as your application with that organization will end right there. And at times, some companies will check references before they call applicants for an interview. If you sign the application, the company has a right to do this. Some states have laws against black-listing and in those states, it’s darned near impossible to get a negative ref. check.

abdpbt October 26, 2009 at 2:33 pm

I’m so glad I’m not going through this process right now. There are like 800 thousand things about me on the internet, and I’m not sure they’d be great for getting me a job for any employer other than myself.
.-= abdpbt´s last blog ..27 Underexplored Career Paths For Sociopaths =-.

Ask a Manager October 26, 2009 at 5:54 pm

I’m suspicious of any employer that calls references before they’ve even interviewed you. Checking references is a pain in the ass; there’s no point in doing it until you know you might be interested in hiring the person. So if employers are doing it before that stage, they aren’t run very efficiently.
.-= Ask a Manager´s last blog ..5 reasons to turn down a job offer =-.

Tim G October 26, 2009 at 9:09 pm

I called for a verification once and got a reference along the way. Started out glowing, and then he said “but Joe’s firing was all a misunderstanding. He didn’t really do anything wrong.”
It was a misunderstanding all right, I misunderstood that he left on good terms.
.-= Tim G´s last blog ..6 Contemplations During My Run Today =-.

Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com October 26, 2009 at 10:05 pm

@Kerry, I simply refuse to work for companies that would treat me like a number. I know the value I bring to the companies and amount of work I put in. I expect respect at every stage. Poor treatment during interviews is absolute indication how rotten then company is from inside.
No, you will not find out what I made before that (it is NDAed information anyway and is none of your business), no you don’t get my SS# or get to run your background checks until there is an offer on the table. Period.

I have that belief my entire career and never had a problem landing with an awesome company. Our lives are too short to work for assholes.
.-= Apolinaras “Apollo” Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com´s last blog ..Beware of corporate cockroaches =-.

Carla October 27, 2009 at 4:04 pm

It is very difficult in this day and age to keep up with key people you’ve worked with in the past due to layoffs, promotions, going on leave, etc and not everyone uses LinkedIn. I’m lucky if I have the contact information from people I’ve worked with two years ago.

In terms of the web, I guess I’m screwed! If a potential employer Googled me, they will know that I have MS AND on disability. I don’t plan on staying on disability forever and they will know that I had to leave my last job because of it. They will also know that I have a online store (that may be in conflict with company policies).

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