company dragging its feet on reference-checking?

A reader writes:

I am trying to find out how long, on average, it would take for a company to check my three references they requested. I have recently checked in with all my references and none has heard anything from that company (no call, email, any contact). It’s been three weeks since I forwarded their details to the new employer.

To make things even more frustrating, when asked for an update, the person responsible for checking the references, who is also the person who interviewed me, indicated she has not managed to contact “all my references,” implying that they did some. I further heard through the grapevine that she indicated in a meeting with the existing team staff, including the hiring manager, that the “reference” they did do was “lukewarm.”

I am totally confused. It is obvious that she did not want me hired, but she could easily have done that by just saying my interview was not that great. What do you make of this?

It certainly doesn’t take three weeks to check three references, if you’re at all motivated to do it. It usually takes a day or two to check references, assuming the references return your calls quickly (and if they don’t, that itself can say something).

There are a few possibilities of what’s going on here:

1. The person in charge of checking references is lazy and not doing her job.
2. The person in charge of checking references (and/or the rest of the hiring team) isn’t that interested in hiring you, but isn’t competent enough to just tell you that straightforwardly.
3. Some or all of your references actually were contacted but since they aren’t giving you a great reference are finding it easier to tell you that they weren’t, rather than deal with the uncomfortable situation of explaining that they didn’t have great things to say.

You can’t fully control any of these situations, but you can mitigate all of them. Here’s what you should do: Email the hiring manager (not the person in charge of checking your references) and ask for a status update. Mention that your references all told you that they have not yet been contacted, and politely ask what sort of timeline the company is working with, both for when your references might be contacted and when you should expect a decision.

Also, are you very sure that all your references will speak glowingly of you? If you have any doubt at all, you should check in with them and make sure these are the correct choices to offer up as references. Being polite and non-defensive, of course, make it clear that you would never want to influence a reference they give for you, but that you’d also rather not supply references who don’t feel they can speak glowingly toward your work. Assure them that if they don’t feel they’re best suited to serve as a reference for you, they can simply let you know that, without any hard feelings. Make it easy for them to opt out. This is a good thing to do with your references as a matter of course, not just in situations like this.

Good luck!

{ 8 comments… read them below }

  1. Krista Francis*

    It has definitely taken me three weeks to check references, which is frustrating and means going back to the candidate repeatedly to get new names or numbers.

    I've also had the opposite experience, what I think of Three up, three down: I place three calls, manage to catch three people rather than voice mail, and walk away with three useful references. Yes!

    The best thing you can do as a candidate is to provide more than the requested number of references. Then if someone's on vacation or doesn't return a call, another name can step in. Double-check all contact numbers and of course, ask permission to use the person as a reference. Also, explain the context in which you know each person on your list and include more than one way to reach them (e.g. e-mail and phone).

    As to your other questions, it's hard to know what the hiring manager is thinking, or whether the grapevine is accurate. Can't help you there but good luck with your job search.

  2. DrJohnDrozdal*

    I completely support the advice given here. I'd also offer this observation.

    I have noticed that there is a trend – particularly in large companies – to respond to a request for references by just verifying employment by providing only the dates that the person worked for that organization. Risk averse human resource departments are simply worried about a potential lawsuit due to what is said in a reference because such lawsuits have occurred. The job-seeking former employee could sue the former employer if he/she does not get the new job saying that it was because of the "untrue" bad reference. And the hiring company could sue the former employer if they give that glowing reference and the new hire turns out to be a dud. This is a sad state of affairs but true.

  3. Just Another HR Lady*

    If the person is giving an update on your references to the team, that would lead me to suspect that one or some of your references are not being honest when they tell you they haven't spoken to this company, for whatever reason.

  4. Kerry*

    It's also possible that they've checked at least one reference…just not one of the ones you expected.

    If I specifically ask someone for a list of references, I mean to check in with those people. However, that's definitely not the ONLY group of people I'll contact. If I'm going to the trouble to contact the people on your list, I'm definitely going to reach out to my own network and ask around about you. I'm guessing the "lukewarm" reference could have been from someone not on your list.

    Of course, it's also possible that one of your references DID give a lukewarm reference and is lying (because how would you ever find out?). It happens.

    That said…three weeks is inexcusable under most any circumstance I can think of. Even if they're not going to hire you because of this "lukewarm" reference, they should have told you at least a couple of weeks ago. I totally agree that you should get in touch with the hiring manager ASAP.

    HR people like this make the rest of us look bad.

  5. class-factotum*

    Hey Kerry — is there a reason your link here doesn't take me back to your blog?

  6. Kerry*

    Because Blogger is very unfriendly to people who use other platforms.

    If I make a comment on a Blogger blog, I have to use my Blogger account, which only allows you to see my Blogger profile (there's a like from there to my blog, but it won't take you directly, because I use WordPress, and WordPress is a competitor).

    If I use the Name/URL option, I can have a direct link to my blog, but I can't have the follow-up comments sent to me…so I never see whether people responded to my comment, left other interesting comments, etc.

    So using the Blogger account is the lesser of two evils. It's an extra click to my blog, but it's worth it to see the follow-up comments.

  7. class-factotum*

    Kerry — I had asked because I am nosy and sometimes just can't keep myself from not minding my own business and also because your blog is so great that I would want other people to find it. So when I clicked, I did not get taken to your blog and when I clicked on your blog name, I did not get taken to your blog! So I was concerned on your behalf. When I went back, I saw that if I click on the 'My web page' it takes me there. Sorry to have bothered you!

  8. Kerry*

    Oh, Class, my irritation is totally with Blogger, not with you. Sorry if I sounded annoyed at the question…not at all.

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