7 Things You Need to Know About References


  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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