lost out on job offer when HR insisted on emails for references

A reader writes:

I recently had a great interview for a part-time temp position and was asked if I would be willing to come in later this week to meet with the person whose position I would be filling in for. The interviewer was very interested in my years of experience in this position and willingness to start ASAP. The person I would meet with is due almost any day so there is a need to fill the job soon.

Everything went great until I met with the HR person who rejected my reference list because she said emails are required for references, as they would have to do the referral online to a contracted company. Only half my references have work computers that are shared and are not allowed to do this kind of thing on the job. Those that have home computers choose not to give their emails to other companies. I had to withdraw my application and lost out on that offer.

Is this something new? What about the fact that this can be an imposition not only on the job seeker, but also puts an extra imposition on the referenced people that want to choose the method of their communication?

It’s ridiculous that they wouldn’t bend on this. I mean, not everyone in the world actually has email, for one thing. (This is true! I just learned that my otherwise normal-seeming neighbor doesn’t have email.) And her response is the sign of an HR person who doesn’t care about doing a great job, but instead is just going through the motions. If I were her manager and learned about this, I’d have grave doubts about how she was approaching her job in general.

Plus, I have grave doubt about reference checks conducted online. When you’re checking references, you want to be able to hear tone of voice, pauses laden with subtext, and so forth. You want to be able to ask follow-up questions. Effective reference-checks are a conversation, not a questionnaire.

That said, I’m surprised that your references wouldn’t agree to give you their home emails when/if you explained the problem to them … which makes me wonder if you asked them. Usually references want to be helpful to people trying to get a job, and it’s hard for me to imagine anyone who would give you a good reference refusing to give an email contact in this situation.

{ 47 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I’m the person that sent the original email. Only 2 of my references have home computers. One is traveling and so only her cell phone is given on the list. I asked the 2nd person, but they had problems recently with hackers and really preferred not to list their email. They did give the home phone and cell #’s however. As I mentioned, the others have work emails, share their computers and would be in trouble at work.
    The company’s corporate office made the policy, but I still believe that the HR person should have intervened, as the interviewer wanted to hire me. HR did not listen to the interviewer either. I decided that if the company was that anal that I wouldn’t want to work there. I withdrew my application after I couldn’t give the emails.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm. I know it’s too late now, but I don’t think I’d have advised withdrawing your application. Instead, I would have said to simply explain that you were unable to get contact info beyond what you’d supplied and why. If they decided to reject you based on that, then fine, that’s their prerogative, but it’s possible they would have ultimately gotten past that issue. By withdrawing your application, you made their decision for them.

    2. Anonymous*

      Yes, I have experienced this same problem. The company I interviewed with insisted upon having at least 2 supervisors complete the online survey. And after seeing that they weren’t responding via email I asked the HR representative to contact via phone. However; HR simply would not bend on this. Needless to say I didn’t get the position. This new system of emailing is really discouraging

  2. Jennifer*

    Great advice from AAM, as per usual. In addition to wanting to hear tone of voice, asking follow-up questions and subtext, the interviewer should want to make sure they are actually talking to your reference, which is much harder to do via email. I remember laughing at the idiocy of the person who tried to disguise his voice to stand in as his boss over the phone for a reference, and will never forget it. That kind of deceit would be infinitely easier if email is all that is required. What a strange policy- maybe they want to have the reference in writing to save? Otherwise I just can’t imagine why they would do this.

      1. Jennifer*

        Yep, that’s the one. Glad to give you a reason to link to it. I actually did work with someone who only listed emails on their reference sheet and guess what- they were fake email accounts he’d made. He was a horrible employee who would never had gotten a positive reference from a superior, and in fact got fired not long after he confessed this practice to me (for an unrelated reason). You really just never know with some people, and I think it’s great that you (AAM and other HR people who post here) go above and beyond to weed these people out.

  3. Clobbered*

    Why in the name of all that is holy did you WITHDRAW your application? If an employer wants to reject you on a technicality, let them reject you!

    1. Anonymous*

      I agree. Your withdrawal on this technicality (rather than letting them make this decision) would’ve led me to believe that your references weren’t actually valid and therefore no love lost.

      1. Clobbered*

        With all due respect, I don’t think one loopy HR person is enough to determine whether a job is a good fit. The OP states they had a great interview, by which I assume the hiring manager seemed fine enough.

        The average employee has very little contact with HR once they are hired. It. Not worth turning down a job just for that.

        1. good for you*

          But, if that is company policy and the hr person would not intervene, as the OP stated, that means there is a real disconnect between company policy/ HR and the real world. They ignored the comments of the interviewer. Sounds like HR considers the opinions of the people of lesser importance than company rules. And someone, presumably corporate HR, does not have a brain. It is dangerous working for a company where HR does not have a brain between them.

        2. Anonymous*

          I think you should take into consideration the attitudes of all the people who you may be potentially working with/for. Take a look at the one of the other recent posts about a potential colleague’s homosexual comment.

  4. Rachel - Former HR Blogger*

    I would never give up phone reference checks. I had a candidate recently that we were going back and forth about. When I called her supervisor of two years the conversation when like this:

    Me: Hi, this is Rachel from XYZ. I’m calling regarding Jane Doe. She says she used to work for you and that you’d be willing to provide a reference.

    Former Supervisor: Okay.

    Me: So, do you remember her?

    Former Supervisor: Yes.

    Usually, my calls go something like this:

    Me: Hi, this is Rachel from XYZ. I’m calling regarding Jane Doe. She says she used to work for you and that you’d be willing to provide a reference.

    Former Supervisor: Oh, Jane. She was great. She worked here two years. What what specifically can I tell you.

    Ultimately the two references said positive statements, but it was their tone that really showed they didn’t think the world of her. Those references were the nail in her coffin.

    1. Mike C.*

      If I might ask, how do you differentiate between the supervisor not liking the candidate because the candidate was bad, and because the supervisor was bad and the candidate left for a better workplace? Or what if the company has a “don’t do anything but confirm employment or you’re fired” policy?

      Understand I don’t know the specifics of that particular situation, but I’ve always wanted to know how hiring managers deal with that issue. After all, there are many reasons a particular employer will dislike a former employee, but not all of them pertain to the performance of the employee.

      1. Rachel - Former HR Blogger*

        I allow people to give me the references they want me to use (although I often call more than that). So, if they’re giving me a name, I expect that person to have some real positive things to say.

        I also check multiple references. Just like the example I gave up, there were two mediocre references, not just one. In that case I also called third and tried to pry more references from the candidates but they were not able to produce them.

        If you know that your supervisor is going to stick to a strict company policy, you better be able to give the names of coworkers or vendors you have worked with. I would be very very weary of anyone who has worked somewhere for at least year and can’t give the names and numbers of three people to be references.

        1. Mike C.*

          That’s reasonable, but considering that you (and other responsible hiring managers) call those who are outside of the list, how do you suss out the situation where someone left on bad terms because they were being treated poorly rather than because they were a bad employee? Is this something you rely on named references to mention?

          What I’m trying to get at here is that oftentimes hiring managers are intensely curious why someone leaves a former position, and the biggest reason someone leaves – they’re being treated terribly – isn’t allowed to be mentioned in the interview at all.

          Also, if there is a strict policy about references that supervisors can’t break, why do you expect coworkers to break it instead, or that the employee in question always has access to vendors? Companies are getting really strict in their policies either out of fear of the law or to help prevent employees moving on to better opportunities. If one is working for a smaller company, these problems are compounded significantly.

          Again here, I’m not trying to question the specific example, but just hiring in general.

          1. Rachel - Former HR Blogger*

            I actually don’t have these problems at all. If I’m calling someone outside of their reference list, then I know that it may not be an unbiased view (not that the references they give me will be unbiased). However, 95% of my candidates are upfront about issues from their past. It’s how they handle discussing it and what they’ve learned from it that makes the difference. The people that don’t admit to their faults or try to hide why they were fired that I won’t trust. No, not every employer is like that but in my field (human services) honesty and self-awareness is needed to be an effective employee.

            You’d be surprised how often supervisors will give references (policy or not). If I had to guess how many supervisors talk to me, I would say it’s in the 90th percentile. I hire around 50 people a year and I talk to supervisors for references almost every time. Coworkers are always willing to talk.

            It sounds like there are major trust issues within your organization. I work in HR and I would never stop a good employee from leaving. Employees comment on how supportive we are as an organization even after they have given notice. In turn, we have a great rehire success rate.

            My company has several no reference policies. I know that supervisors are giving out references left and right for people they like and that’s fine with me. Sometimes they call and ask me proper procedure and I tell them what the policy is and then I tell them what legally matters (ie. honesty and verifiable information). On occasion I will get a call from a supervisor that has been asked but is not comfortable giving the reference. I just tell them to refer to the policy if they don’t want to say anything negative.

            1. Mike C.*

              Yeah, there are severe trust issues at my organization. I’m glad to hear that such things are not the norm, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell when you’re in the thick of it.

    2. Anonymous*

      I also wonder how this is determined. Our company has a policy that infuriates me, and must be frustrating to former employees. Supervisors are required to refer all reference requests to HR, who will only confirm dates of employment and position- in writing, by written request. While this may be an advantage to those termed for cause, good employees who simply move on are penalized. This policy is strictly adhered to and supervisors who violate it (even for personal references) are putting their jobs at risk if they violate it. I imagine not many do.

  5. Mike C.*

    This reminds me of a job I applied for that at first insisted on a short list of references with the application and then changed to requiring three letters of recommendation. I simply told them that given the time of year it was simply too much to ask for letters like that on such short notice and that the folks on my list would be more than happy to talk with via the provided e-mail addresses and phone numbers.

    Suffice it to say I never heard a thing from them. I’m getting tired of these crazy requests to be quite honest. My references are doing a favor for me, and I’m not going to waste their time on the whims of a crazy hiring manager.

    1. Emily*

      I hear you. I’m young enough that my employment history is really too short to include more than three professional references. When a potential employer that required five cast off professors who knew me as an undergraduate, eliminated one more person who’d left the position in which she supervised me to become a full-time mom, and then asked for three replacement names on the spot (“even someone you’ve supervised yourself would be fine”), I didn’t officially withdraw my application so much as I was so dumbstruck that I wondered aloud if my Girl Scout troop leader would qualify. I can only assume he was conducting an inquiry more appropriate for a management-level role. The position wasn’t entry-level, but I don’t know many associate-level people who have direct reports.

  6. Anonymous*

    Me again, I did ask the HR person to contact their corporate office to see if they would give the option to go with the references I gave. HR refused and said there was no other option and if I wanted the job I had to comply. Since I couldn’t and these were my best references, I withdrew the application. At that point, I was ready to tell her what to do with the list! I kept calm and left before I lost it.

    1. Lynda*

      I think it’s reasonable to acknowledge that there are some emotional issues involved in job hunting, especially in this market. While we all try to never make any mistakes, sometimes it’s better to walk away from a situation than to continue to let it distress you after you’ve gotten a bad vibe. Then you can use your energy for the next application. I don’t know that walking away was a mistake in this situation.

  7. mouse*

    I think this is becoming very common. I have a few references for whom I do not give addresses per their request. I list their city and state only. I’ve had more than a few hiring managers try to push me to give that info and behave very rudely when I explain that I’m attempting to respect their privacy.

  8. Anonymous*

    Much of my career has been as an IT contractor. My list of former managers/supervisors goes something like this: retired, moved, laid off, changed companies, company closed, changed divisions, institutionalized, in rehab… And when you ask for my supervisor’s name do you mean my team lead, my manager, my project manager, my contract agency contact, or the person who signed my time sheet?

    I do have some solid references that I keep in touch with periodically that remember my name and what I do, but I cringe when applications specifically want contact information for supervisors.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I hear you about former managers being hard to locate, or in some cases, impossible to contact without a ouija board. I’ve been with my present company for 5-1/2 years, and have two people who have agreed to be references for me. It’s a small company, and sad to say, many people here are untrustworthy. My former manager might easily say things that would be detrimental to my being hired. In which case, the deceased would be a better bet for me.

  9. GeekChic*

    I’ve been a reference fairly often and at no time would I ever give out my personal email. I rarely hand it out as it is and there is no way in heck I’m giving it out to an HR person that doesn’t have a clue.

    Frankly, I think the OP dodged a bullet. After all, what other inane policies does this workplace have that will end up making her life miserable?

  10. Adam*

    If that was me and my references didn’t have emails, and I really wanted a job I would have set-up three gmail accounts for all three of my references. Called my references and told them to log into their accounts and reply to the emails and then deactived the accounts.

    Just a thought, where there is a will there is a way.

    1. ctBrian*

      Excellent idea! I had one more.

      Scan the letters of reference into pdfs. Offer to send them over electronically and explain that this will give them an elctronic record, after you explain that these references do not have Email, or that they are not allowed to give out the Email addresses where they work.

      If HR person won’t give on it and insists on having the references’ Email, explain that you’ll contact the references and try again and then fall back on your idea.

  11. Sorry, Guys, But It's My Job*

    I work in HR for a major employer. Our reference check process goes to Checkster, an online reference check company. Basically, you input your reference’s emails, your references get an email asking them to participate in a survey, etc., etc.

    Yes, you must supply your references’ email addresses. No, we cannot make any exceptions. Yes, this is company protocol. No, I am not just being “an asshole.” It is what it is. If you can’t supply email addresses, well, what can I say? You decide if you want to work for our company. My personal feelings about it (which coincide with AAM, in that this is stupid and ineffective) are irrelevant.

    1. Mike C.*

      Or maybe you can find a way to understand that your organization is being incredibly lazy in their hiring process.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ideally in this situation, someone in HR would push for the process to be changed, or a non-HR manager would object to having her hires handled in this way. In a well-run company, the best argument is going to win out — although certainly there are plenty of companies where that’s not how they function!

    3. wits*

      “your references get an email asking them to participate in a survey”

      I wonder how many people delete it thinking it’s spam?

    4. Kat*

      I got one of these for a former co-worker. Who hadn’t asked if I’d be a reference first. Probably because she knew I’d say I couldn’t/wouldn’t…while I was tempted to see how the online survey reference went, they are so much easier to ignore than a phone call…

  12. Sorry, Guys, But It's My Job*

    I don’t like it, but this was my boss’s idea – the head of HR, by the way – and he just looooves it. Thinks it’s the best thing in the world.

    It is what it is. Nothing we say is going to change anything, trust me. Candidates are generally able to gather their references’ email addresses, and if they don’t…..another candidate will. Again – it is what it is.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m not even going to blame your boss. I’m going to blame the hiring managers in your company, who are content to allow HR to handle references for them. I’d never give up the ability to check references on my candidates myself, if they’re going to be working for me, because it’s not just a background check to verify info; it’s an actual conversation with previous managers in which I can learn all kinds of interesting things about how to manage the person well. So phhhft to the managers in your company for not caring to do it themselves.

  13. Sorry, Guys, But It's My Job*

    Apparently, several of our hiring managers agree with you – they take it upon themselves to verify past employers, speak to references, etc. You know, all of those things that HR should be doing, as well.

    However, candidates are still subjected to the online reference check process. So…..I second your raspberry noise and raise you a forehead-to-the-keyboard noise.

  14. Anonymous*

    having once worked for major company, I’m familiar with this Checkster vendor as well as the corporate love of outsourcing. in addition, as an employee of major company, we would be subject to job loss for doing personal items via company email. nor would I want said vendor having my personal email with which to sell to the spam machines. the earlier suggestion about setting up temp gmail accounts was brilliant, however, it’s risky to request your refs to jump thru too many hoops over and over again.

  15. Liz in a library*

    As a perpetual reference, I’d also like to say that many of these online request forms are next to useless for the reference as well.

    I submitted an online reference for a colleague a few weeks ago that consisted of ~15 likert scale questions on their personality, and a single free-answer text box for “anything else we should know about the candidate.” The text box was limited to 150 characters.

    So, sadly, that employer did not get to hear about her dedication to work, excellent people skills, creativity, intelligence, or the fact that I would happily do damn near anything to keep her working in our department. What a waste…

    There was no contact information for the manager included in the e-mail I was sent either. Or information about the job (though she had, of course, already provided me that). Just the survey link.

      1. Liz in a library*

        Yep. I think I pretty much responded to the tune of: “Creative, warm, intelligent. You should hire.” It was worthless.

  16. Vicki*

    These days, it’s pretty easy to get a temporary email address. I’ve read advise that recommends this for job hunters… why not for your references?

    Set one up at a web-mail site such as yahoo.com or gmail.com and don’t worry about it.

  17. Anonymous*

    Wow. You could, of course, have just created a half-dozen Gmail addresses and used those for the references. Surprise, they would have been glowing…

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