how long should a reference check take?

by Ask a Manager on June 23, 2012

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A reader writes:

I’ve been in the process of applying and interviewing for a particular job for a few weeks now. Everything has gone smoothly enough, and except for one short delay after my second interview, they’ve met all the timelines they’ve given me about when they expected to get to the next step along the way. The job itself is one I’m very excited about, and I think it matches what I want to be doing much better than my current job does.

Ten days ago, I got an e-mail saying that they were going to start the reference and background check process, and they asked if there was anyone I’d prefer they check with last (two of the four references I’ve given are at my current job, including my current supervisor). I’m in a pretty good place here, and my supervisor knows I’m looking to do something different. She’s supportive of that, even though she’s said several times that she will hate to see me go, and has said she’d be very pleased to do whatever she could in terms of giving me a reference. So, I contacted my references, let them know that the process was getting to that stage, and that they would probably be contacted soon.

I know they contacted two of my references (the ones I don’t currently work with: a former co-worker who now works for this company, and a former supervisor) about two days after they told me they’d be checking references. Since then, nothing. Neither of my other references have heard anything, either. Should I follow up with them again and ask if they need anything else from me? Has it taken long enough that I should just move on? I get the idea of employer time vs. candidate time, and I’m trying to be patient, but I’m just not sure what is the right thing to do here.

Sure, check back with them. Don’t ask if they need anything else from you though, since if the answer is no, you’ll have no more information than you have right now. Instead, ask if they have a timeline for making a decision.

Since the two references they haven’t contacted are people you currently work with, it’s possible that they’re deliberately skipping those out of a desire not to jeopardize your current employment (even though you gave them permission). Or it’s possible the process is just dragging out for some reason — someone’s out sick or on vacation, higher priority work that came up and needs to be dealt with, a budget question that needs to be resolved before they can make the hire, a decision-maker who hasn’t had time to act, etc. Or they might have had other interviews to complete, which would delay everything. Or, it’s possible that they have an offer out to someone else and they’re waiting for an answer from that person before they get back to you.

Plus, even at reasonably efficient companies, this stage of the process can slow down, as a decision needs to be made, various people often need to sign off, offer paperwork needs to be pulled together, etc.

It’s also possible — although frankly, less likely — that they heard something from one of the first two references that gave them pause. How confident are you that those references are glowing, and in particular that they would be glowing for this type of work?

In any case, it’s completely reasonable to check in with them since it’s been nearly weeks since your last contact. Send a quick email, reiterate your interest, and ask if they can give you a sense of when they’ll be making a decision. Good luck.

{ 37 comments }

JLH June 23, 2012 at 9:15 am

AAM, we all make mistakes when typing, and I just wanted to give you a heads-up on this one:

“higher priority work that came up and needs to be *death* with”

Tamara June 23, 2012 at 9:48 am

I was thinking that “death” was probably more accurate in this case. That’s about how I usually feel when my work gets in the way of my other work!

Ask a Manager June 23, 2012 at 9:53 am

Ha! Thank you.

Dawn June 23, 2012 at 9:35 am

Are they doing a background check as well as a reference check? Because (and I didn’t know this until my last job) those are given out to third party companies to fulfill and they can take for-eve-r.

Riki June 24, 2012 at 10:34 am

Goodness yes. I worked at a place that did the usual reference check, plus a background check and drug test via outside vendor. The whole process could take up to a month, easy.

P June 27, 2012 at 9:05 pm

And it doesn’t help when they misunderstand your resume and make false claims.
Background checking company: “Harvard says you didn’t get an MD there”
Me: “I never said I had an MD from Harvard. I worked as a post-doctoral fellow in the Harvard Medical School” I’m still waiting to hear whether this was conveyed to the employer and affected my application because a decision hasn’t been made yet. What do background checkers actually tell employers? Is it just a factual statement eg Joe Citizen worked at Sample company, this year to this year – correct.

Beth June 23, 2012 at 9:42 am

I agree with Dawn. If they are conducting a background check as well as a reference check it can take some time. If it were me, I would conduct *all* elements of the pre-employment screen before contacting the current supervisor as a courtesy to the applicant. There’s no sense in getting the current employer riled up if an offer is not imminent.

Anonymous June 23, 2012 at 10:34 am

I know the past two jobs I’ve taken were through large corporations, and in both cases I had to wait longer for them to get back to me than the timeline I’d originally been given at the interviews. In both instances, I was the #1 pick, so it was simply the paperwork that bogged down the process. When I was a hiring manager myself, our company used a process where each department worked off of preapproved budgets including staffing, so we didn’t have to get each individual hire approved. But even then, sometimes if people were busy or if there was disagreement about who to hire, we’d take longer than we said to get back to candidates.

Marie June 23, 2012 at 11:42 am

I use a third party for reference and back ground check… it takes between 3 to 15 working days to get the results…. if they are using those kind of services that might explain de delay.

AD June 23, 2012 at 1:41 pm

If the applicant has lived in another state in the last 7 years, it tends to be closer to the high end.

Alisha June 23, 2012 at 6:01 pm

The one job I took with a large company required an extensive background check. Fortunately, they warned me that the process would take a while, and it wound up taking 3.5 full weeks, or 17 business days. The company has since lengthened its hiring process, and they realize they risk losing good candidates in the process, but I imagine it’s a risk they’re willing to take. They’re the largest company in a city with a weak economy (by a huge margin) and by virtue of the benefits package alone, they’re never wanting for candidates. If they were based in, say, NYC, they’d have to make a few changes to stay competitive.

Mary Cate June 23, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Alison, I’m currently job-hunting in DC, and recently discovered your website — it’s been invaluable! It’s a relief to know that other job-hunters are facing the same challenges as I am. Thanks for the resources!

What the? June 23, 2012 at 11:33 pm

Is it possible that maybe they were satisfied with the 2 references that were contacted and did not need to call the others?

Andrea June 24, 2012 at 8:10 pm

I have hired someone where the reference check took longer than a week, because the person lived in multiple cities and counties within a recent time period, and, those counties didn’t have online access to reference check information. So, the reference check company had to physically go to courthouses to check information. Perhaps that is the case.

"A Reader" June 25, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I’m the one who wrote that question, and I just wanted to thank you for this response. I still don’t know anything (I didn’t write the hiring manager until about an hour ago), but this advice, particularly the reminders from the comments that background checks and such can take time, really helped calm me down.

Thanks again.

HB June 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Agreeing with several other posters – when I was hired for my current job last summer, there was a period of over a month in between my interview and the official job offer. They only contacted two of my three references, and the background check took forever because I lived out of state. It was so stressful waiting! Especially once I knew they were calling references – even at that point, it took another two weeks before I got the happy call. Don’t stress out, the offer is likely on the way!! :)

Weatherman July 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm

I love this blog. I applied with a large company for an operational position at their headquarters in Atlanta (I live out west). I was invited for a face-to-face interview 9 weeks later and the interview went well. I followed up nicely, and received a brief but friendly response. I sat tight for a week and a half, and sent another follow up after hearing nothing. I was then asked for my professional references, which I provided. I have heard NOTHING a week later, nor have ANY of my references been called. Not sure what to do. I sent an email to the recruiter yesterday asking if they had an idea when they might have a decision but she didn’t respond. I really really want this job! I’ve worked for years to land a job like this, and I would move across the country for it. But I’m slowly losing my mind! Thoughts on why they haven’t called any of my references a week after asking for them?

Weatherman July 12, 2012 at 6:50 pm

I should add that when they called to ask for my references on July 3, they asked me to have the references to them by end of work day on July 5 which of course I did.

Ask a Manager July 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm

I’d give you the same advice as the original question-asker here. Read that “employer time vs. employee” time article that’s linked in the original question too!

Weatherman July 17, 2012 at 3:14 pm

I understand the concept of “employer time vs. employee time”, but it’s now been a month since my interview,and 2 weeks since they asked for my references (none of which have been contacted). I’m just wondering why they’d ask for my references and then never call them. I wrote an email last week simply asking when I could expect to hear back from them regarding a hiring decision and STILL NOTHING! I just feel stupid if I am spending all this time trying to be optimistic and thinking that I am still in the running-if in reality they have already moved on. Still…..I flew across the country and interviewed and toured the facility–I really think they would let me know one way or the other. Anyways, good times!!

Jeff September 23, 2012 at 8:34 am

I’m currently in the process of greeting a new job. The interviewing company is in the process of reference checking . They are asking me to sign a wavior to talk to my references. They are also requesting up to 45 minutes with my references. Is this normal?

Thanks for any feedback .

Ask a Manager September 23, 2012 at 9:18 am

It’s not abnormal.

Jeff September 23, 2012 at 9:21 am

Thank you ! I just thought it was a lot to ask of someone’s time.

manny November 11, 2012 at 1:28 am

I started a job 3 months ago and did a drug test. I will start a new job, can I use the results of my last drug test for this new job or do I have to take a new test?

Kian December 12, 2012 at 4:07 pm

About a week, or so, after an extensive interview; I was called to give them references. It was great. I was offered the job (via phone). I had to fill out extensive information on their company portal including a w-4 form any reading the company handbook and processes on line, and c0nsent to a background check. The site says the background check will take 3-5 business days. It’s been about 8 days. I called last week twice and left voice messages and a text. No answer. I just sent an email as a follow up.

Fingers crossed.
I just want to know what is going on. And not seem too pushy/needy.

I am starting to get employer/ prospective employee time…but a status update would have been tremendously helpful.

-anxiously waiting

Danton January 11, 2013 at 7:40 pm

I interviewed with a company late December and they called me in after the holidays to meet in person. This was last week Friday, then just before COB Monday I was asked for references and since then I haven’t heard anything, nor have the references been contacted. I was going nuts this whole week but some of you guys seem to have gone through worse .. I’m still pretty distraught..

Stephanie January 22, 2013 at 11:51 am

I interviewed with a company in May 2012 and they initially had 2 positions open. They offered the open position to someone else and told me that if the second position ever opened up again they’d begin the process all over again. Last week (yes 8 months later) they contacted me saying the position opened up and if I was still interested. I said yes and they sent me information for a background and reference check. I still haven’t heard anything yet. But then again it’s only been 5 business days. I’ll follow up with them after 7.

Dawn January 29, 2013 at 9:32 pm

I interviewed for a really great position within the government sector. This was in early October 2012. They offered me the position 2 weeks after the interview contingent upon a successful background check. I followed up with the hiring manager and asked the time frame in making their decision. The follow up was very prompt. He thank me for my patience and said they were in the process of finalizing the background and reference check. Furthermore he assured me that someone would be in contact with me for the next step. I still have not heard from anyone. I am concern that I still have not heard from anyone. Should I send/call as a follow up yet again or just wait?

Ask a Manager January 29, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Send an email asking for an update.

Felicity S. February 28, 2013 at 10:51 am

It will be almost a week and a half from when my potential employer told me that even ‘though my first reference spoke highly of me’ he wasn’t my manager so they also didn’t check my other 2 references as they were also just colleagues. They did proceed to ask for my transcripts so they said they could make a final decision.

I’m confused because they never told me me it HAS to be a supervisor or manager and they knew I’m currently employed. I also gave them a heads up that I am changing my references (didn’t know my only supervisor I could use from 5 yrs ago changed ph#s) for which I included the new references’ relationship with me.

What do you think is my standing with this smaller, private company? Also, when should I follow with them?

Felicity S. February 28, 2013 at 11:02 am

*’even though
*follow up

(Sorry, I lost my Internet connection before I could proof read.)

Chelseaparker123 March 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Here is the happened after I applied for a job with a large Canadian Corporation in Canada.

1) Received an email from HR within 4 weeks after applying for the job for scheduling a telephone interview for 30 minutes.

2)Telephone interview was for 10 minutes with the HR person. Asked me some very basic questions about my current employment. Invited me to interview with the HR person and 2 managers the following week.
3) Interviewed at their office for 70 minutes with the HR person and 2 managers. Asked about the work I currently do, several behavioral questions, and challenges the position presented. Interview went very well. I asked them at the end what would be the next step. They said they would interview 4 – 5 candidates and then will select for the second round.
4) Received an email from the HR person inviting me to interview with the Director and one of the managers I met earlier. Asked to provide references.
5) Final interview was with the manager and the Director.The interview went well But was only for 30 minutes. Asked me mostly behavioral questions. The Director mentioned the position involved clerical and junior level work than what I do in my current job. I said I was aware of that and would look forward to working with them if hired. In end I asked if there would be any more interviews. They said this was the final and the next step would be reference check.
6) Emailed the HR person after the interview thanking the person for giving me the opportunity to interview with them and also that I am awaiting a decision on my application.

It has been 3 business days since the final interview. None of my references have been called yet. Typically how soon the HR does reference check? Within a day or two?
Should I be worried and consider this as a “no go”?
Should I email the HR person after 7 business days?

Would appreciate if someone could respond on this one.

The IT Manager March 13, 2013 at 12:48 pm

Don’t worry yet. Doesn’t sound like a “no go,” but don’t stop looking other places. (You shouldn’t stop looking until you actually have the offer and have accepted it.)

After 7 days or a bit more if your references have not been contacted, I think it would be appropriate to contact the HR person and ask if they have a timeline for the next step.

Chelseaparker123 March 14, 2013 at 11:46 am

Thanks IT Manager! This was very helpful!

Green Apple June 6, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Hi I dropped my Cv to a branch manager (financial industry) and she passed onto HR manager for me (very kindly). Then HR and this manager interviewed me and went well. After a week, as they advised, HR called me for submitting the referee’s details. Subsequently, I called both referee who were my previous employers and they said they would say nice things about me.

After one and half week, this Wednesday, one of my referee informed that she had a good conversation with HR about me. But later, HR informed me that they were waiting the response from my first referee. So I had to email my main referee and very gently reminded her to response HR’s inquiry yesterday morning and my main referee emailed me back said she has spoken to HR.

I am kind of nervous, would the delay of referee response impact on the decision of the prospective employer to give me this job? What can I do at this stage?

How long should I wait for the final decision? Great thanks!

Unemployed four years now! June 21, 2013 at 10:09 pm

I have not had a full-time job in my field for 4 years now and it has been very stressful. Since then I have gone back to school and obtained my Masters. I have had interviews here and there but they have not lead to an offer. On Tuesday of last week HR contacted me for an in person interview which was on that Thursday. The interview went well and I was assured and told not to get nervous if I didn’t hear anything early this week but I would hear something Friday (today). Actually I was contacted Monday congratulating me and saying that they wanted to move to the next step and check my references. I listed 5 references and 4 were contacted on Tuesday and the last one on Wednesday. Since then I have been on pins and needles. I realize there may be some delays for approvals. Hold up wait a minute!! They just called and offered me the position. What a relief. The hiring manager called and told me that now they will give me an official offer on Monday and then the process is me taking a TB test and them doing a background check and me starting some time next week. So every company is different in their process. This is for a school district. Everyone’s comment were helpful and I hope mines help. Good luck! FYI this call was today at 1:00 pm but I’m just posting.

Allen December 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm

depends on what unit you were applied. For my aunt’s case.
she applied a job on Jan-2012. then she got a phone call to notice they received her resume on Mar-2012. Then she got an interview on August-2012. on December-2012, she got a verbal offer, then she was asked providing reference and she went to work on Jan-2013 the next year. Finished??
No not yet, she needs to do a background check for the next whole year. If she passed, she will be the formal employee..

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