8 things you should know about job references

If you’re job-searching, at some point you’re going to be asked for references. Here are eight things about the reference-checking process that you might not know.

1. Employers don’t always stick to the references on the list you gave them.

Employers can call anyone you’ve worked for or who might know you; they don’t have to limit themselves to the formal list of references you provide. The only thing typically considered off-limits in reference-checking is calling your current employer.

2. “We don’t give references” is often a lie.

If your company has a policy against giving references, it’s usually HR types who adhere to the letter of these policies; individual managers are often willing to give more detailed references, no matter what the policy says.

3. References are often highly subjective and opinionated.

It’s a myth that past employers can only confirm dates of employment. It’s both legal and common for employers to give detailed references – and a surprising number of references are either lukewarm or bad.

4. It looks bad when a reference you provided wasn’t expecting the call.

When you give us your old manager’s number, we assume you’ve told her to expect the call. We assume she’s going to be ready to talk about you, and it doesn’t look great if her first response is, “Who?” You also want to make sure that your references are going to be available, not out of town and unreachable.

5. You can find out what kind of reference someone is giving you.

If you’re worried about what kind of reference you’ll get from your old boss, you can always simply call and politely ask whether or not you’re safe using her as a reference. Unless your former boss is crazy or malicious, she’s unlikely to be so committed to thwarting your job search that she’d lie to you about this. But if you don’t trust her to be candid with you, you can have someone else call and do a reference check on you. There are companies you can hire for that, but there’s nothing that says you can’t have a friend do it for you for free.

6. You might be able to neutralize a bad reference.

If you’re worried about getting a bad reference, call your old boss and ask if she’d be willing to reach an agreement with you on what she’ll say to future reference calls. Say something like this: “I’m concerned that the reference you’re providing for me is preventing me from getting work. Could we work something out so that this isn’t standing in my way?” Many employers will be willing to work something out with you.

And if you think the reference your boss is providing is factually inaccurate, skip her and go straight to your old company’s HR department. HR people are trained in this stuff, will be familiar with the potential for legal problems, and will probably speak to your old boss and put a stop to it.

7. If all else fails, you can warn prospective employers that the reference won’t be a good one.

And you do want to give this warning, because it allows you to provide context and framing for what the reference-checker might be about to hear. If you don’t, they may never tell you that the reference is why they rejected you, so the time to speak up is beforethey place the call. Ideally, you’d offer up former coworkers, clients, and others who can speak more positively about your work, and even old copies of performance reviews if you have them. Sometimes the mere offer of these things will provide the reassurance employers are looking for.

8. Letters of reference are rarely worth your time.

No one puts critical information in reference letters, so we know they don’t count for much. Besides, when hiring managers get to the point that we want to talk to your references, we want to talkto them—on the phone, where we can ask questions and probe around. We want to hear their tone, hear where they hesitate before answering, and hear what happens when we dig around about potential problem areas.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 6 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    What was the original source about this urban legend that it’s illegal to give anything other than dates of employment/title(s)/salaries.

    Two companies for whom I’ve worked in the past had HR departments who swore by this as if it were holy writ.

    Is this just an over-correction because someone once won a lawsuit over a bad reference? It’s just so weird that it’s as pervasive as it is.

  2. Rachel*

    Your number 1 was going to be my number 1. I can’t believe how many people are shocked that we don’t have to stick to the references given. I love to respond, “Why not?” when people tell me “Well, you can’t call anyone not on the reference list.” They’re never able to follow it up with an answer.

  3. Anonymous*

    How can then the issue about warning your references ahead of time really work when the interviewer can call people who are not on your exact reference list?

    I hear the “myth” of what can be said in a reference phone call from people who have worked decades ago. It seems like this generation is saying otherwise.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s two different things: When you hand over a list of references, they assume that you’ve prepared those people on it to expect a call. But of course, if they call someone not on the list, they don’t assume that.

  4. Carrie*

    Hi my last employment was working with my mom for 4 years and she recently lost the contract but now I’m branching out on my own. Should I tell my interviewer this on up coming opportunities as they need to contact my last employer

Comments are closed.