secrets of a reference-checker

Job applicants often hand over their references without much thought about what happens behind the scenes. But references can be a make-or-break element of job-searching, and it’s crucial to understand how they work.

Here are eight things about reference checks that you might not be aware of.

1. Policies about not providing references are frequently broken. While some employers have a policy that they won’t give a reference beyond simply confirming your dates of employment, in reality this policy is broken all the time. It’s usually HR types who adhere to the letter of these policies, while individual managers are often willing to give more detailed references, regardless of what the rule is.

2. Employers can call people outside of your reference list. While people often believe employers limit themselves to the formal list of references you provide, the reality is that they may call anyone you’ve worked for or who might know you. And in fact, a lot of reference-checking happens behind the scenes when an employer spots a mutual connection and calls that person to ask their opinion of you. The only person who’s typically considered off-limits in reference-checking is your current employer.

3. Employers can ask references anything they want. Contrary to the myth that employers can only ask very targeted and limited questions, they can ask anything at all (as long as it’s not about protected classes, like race, religion, disabilities, and so forth).

They can and do ask about your work ethic, your attitude, how your work compared to your peers’ work, what you accomplished, what your weakest points are, why you left, and whether the employer would be excited to hire you again, among other things.

4. Tone is often more important than words. A good reference-checker pays close attention to tone. If the reference sounds hesitant, uncomfortable, or anxious to get off the phone, those are red flags.

5. A lukewarm reference can be damning. Reference-checking isn’t about simply ticking off a series of boxes confirming that you weren’t fired for insubordination or theft. Instead, a good reference-checker is looking to see how your past managers talk about your work, and whether they’re enthusiastic about you or not. There’s a telling difference between “Sure, she did a fine job,” and “She’s just the best – I wish we could hire her, but since we can’t, you must.”

6. What your past bosses say matters a lot more than what your peers say. Offering up only peers as references is a red flag that will make an employer wonder why you don’t want your past managers contacted. And bosses are the ones we really care about talking to, because they’re the ones who can speak to what you’re like as an employee in a way that peers often can’t.

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

8. You might be able to neutralize a bad reference. If your former boss isn’t speaking highly of you, call 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 area, will be familiar with the potential for legal problems, and will probably speak to your old boss and put a stop to it.

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

{ 30 comments… read them below }

  1. Tim C.*

    All true! However I had a problem with references not addressed. I was interested in leaving my employer after 11 years. My former employer was long since closed and those managers/directors were long gone, even retired. I had to resort to asking co-workers for references. I even had one retired manager provide his home phone number. It all worked out since I networked well and references were a rather minor player in getting a new job.

  2. ChristineH*

    How would I even find out what references about me? I haven’t gotten to the reference-check point (at least that I’m aware of) since getting my last year a few years ago, but I’ve often wondered if I’ve gotten close but was rejected from consideration for a lukewarm or even a bad reference. Do prospective employers typically reveal that to an applicant?

    1. fposte*

      Generally, no, and if you’re really concerned you can have a friend or a service call your references.

      But references rarely come into play until after interviews, so if you didn’t make it to interviews, it’s not likely to have been the result of underwhelming references.

  3. Anonymous*

    How do you neutralize a boss who may say lukewarm or possibly bad things, but said boss is the HR manager for the comany?

      1. Anonymous*

        I ended up resigning because my boss gave me the ultimatum of “If you make one more mistake, you’re fired.” When I handed in my resignation he said that it wouldn’t be recorded as a termination but a resignation and no performance management plan would be in my file. When I left he shook my hand and gave me his business card in case I needed anything. On the surface he was very amicable about it.

        I was told employment verifications would be dates of employment and a resignation. However, this boss was caught committing timeclock fraud as a foreman before becoming the HR manager. There is a long history of dysfunction at the company and the department. Because of this I am leary of what would be said.

        I am also a little bitter because I know of three similar mistakes made by co-workers, and they were not given the same ultimatum. The reason why I know of the mistakes is because they were made before a shift of duties came to me, and I was responsible for correcting them.

        It’s been over four months, and I’ve gone on ten interviews but have had no luck. I’m not saying I’ve given perfect interviews everytime but part of me wonders . . .

        1. Joey*

          Lukewarm or saying nothing is about the best you can expect in this situation. But to conclude that he MAY be saying something negative? What’s more likely is that your lukewarm or no reference probably isn’t good enough to get you the job. Especially when there are lots of unemployed people out there with great references.

  4. John*

    Something strange just happened to me a week ago. I went for an interview at a fortune 500 company and they really liked me and asked me to come the following day to test my skills. They asked for 3 references and I provided 4, who were all professionals who I had contacted a day before and they were more than happy to provide reference for me. I was getting ready to go for the testing, dressed up and I received an email saying they no-longer needed to fill that position so I should continue on with my search. What could have happened in a couple of hours?

    1. Anonymous*

      One of your references isn’t as great as you think they are. Have a friend call them for a reference check and find out what is really being said.

    2. Julie*

      It might be as simple as they said: they no longer needed to fill the position. Maybe they got someone internal. Maybe the boss decided they no longer have the budget. Maybe there was some out-of-the-ballpark candidate they’d interviewed earlier and finally decided to offer the job to. Maybe the internal communications just really suck and the HR wasn’t informed that someone was chosen already.

      There can be any number of things, not just relating to your references. (Though that’s also a possibility.) Lots of things can happen, and sometimes in a very short period of time.

  5. Anonymous*

    Enthusiasm is the key thing I look for in any type of reference. That’s how I found my awesome dentist, barber and Realtor. Luke warm is the kiss of death for me. Mediocre people in any profession are easy to find.

  6. Anonymous*

    Has anyone used a fee-based reference checking service to find out what a previous employer might say? I’m considering doing so but am not sure it’s worth the money.

    * I’ve considered asking a friend or relative to pose as a potential employer. The person whom I’m concerned about is frequently not at work when he is supposed to be, though. It would be a hassle to keep phoning to try and find him actually at work, so I’d rather hire someone.

    1. Karl*

      Yes, I used Allison & Taylor a couple years ago. In addition to sharing that my former employer only did a “salary and dates” confirmation and wouldn’t share anything else, the report also included a note about the tone of the person who gave the reference (it said they sounded believable, rather than evasive).

      More fascinating, the report lists each contact attempt — it took eight calls for the reference-checker to finally reach someone at my former employer.

  7. Anonymous*

    Last year, I used the services of a professional reference checking company (Allison & Taylor ) . They did a great job and put my mind at ease.
    The company is based in the US and my references were in Canada.
    It was worth the money!

  8. Anonymous*

    I disagree about not including letters of recommendation – especially when someone has been laid off. I’ve been laid off TWICE in the past 3 years, and to prospective employers, it’s a “red flag.” My boss at my most recent job wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation after my layoff. His letter has helped alot – basically letting employers know that I was laid off, NOT fired.

  9. Suzanne*

    I quit a job without having another before a year was up because I feared for my sanity (I could write a book!). When asked, I simply say it wasn’t a good fit. I have as a reference one of the people I supervised, but not my supervisor as his utter and complete lack of anything that resembled direction and support was much of the reason I quit. He thought I was doing a fine job and was surprised when I left. I’m still not sure how to handle that. I was asked at one interview why he was not on my reference list and I said I felt the person I supervised could give a better idea of my work. I didn’t get the job, though.

    1. Anonymous*

      Do you have anyone who was a supervisor or manager on your list. Making sure you can jump in and say, no, but these three other managers are on my list and can speak to my work very clearly.

  10. Piper*

    To be honest, I’ve had a string of some of the worst bosses in history. I’m pretty sure I’m cursed. One was ragingly violent (throwing things at people and just generally a nutcase- when people quit we often thought we might have to phone the police to restrain him- not even kidding a little bit there); another and I had a great working relationship, he praised me to anyone who would listen, but then stopped speaking to me after I put my two-week notice in (really not a peep); and yet another was so far removed from what I did or interacting with me on a daily basis that he honestly wouldn’t have a clue what to say in a reference (I guess he wasn’t a bad manager in the crazy sense, but in the completely absent so what would he know anyway sense). My current manager is the only one I’d trust not to be an idiot. He’s awesome and I wish I could take him with me to my next job.

    And so, I have very few bosses as references, but I do have clients, co-workers, a guy who was a manager who I did most of my work for (but not my actual manager since that job was the one where the boss was nonexistent), and project managers. What more can I do here? My guess is not much.

  11. Dan Ruiz*

    I’ve been at my job for 9.5 years. How do I provide old bosses as references when I hardly remember their names and have no idea how to reach them?


    p.s. I tried to leave this comment at U.S. News and was stymied to the point of frustration :-(

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Any chance you can find them on LinkedIn?

      Also, sorry you had trouble with U.S. News — can you tell me what the issue was and I can let them know about it?

  12. ARM2008*

    It’s interesting to hear that some people actually check references and it means something. I last worked 4 years ago, and it was for a contract agency at company A. Next week I am returning to work at company A, via the same contract agency (and even the same recruiter) and they want to call my references. They don’t want to use any references from company A, so they are calling the same references from 4 years ago. Company A was very happy with my work the last time I was there. I guess it’s just a matter of checking the box that references were called, and busy work for me and my references.

  13. Harry*

    Once my contact was given to a recruiter for as a reference then the recruiter began asking about my ‘situation’. Clearly he tried to recruit me. One one hand I felt it was inappropriate but on the other hand, I may be losing opportunity. Thoughts?

  14. Tom*

    Companies are very careful especially when the want to give someone a bad reference. They have caller ID and reverse number search to make sure you are whom you say you are. Also companies use a faxed sheet that you fill out when applying for a job (a release so you can’t sue them for providing a bad reference) If a company is in doubt about who you might be they will research the petechial company on the web to make sure they are a ligament company and then call them back when they are sure. Be careful of reference checking services that they are not playing both sides of the fence. They will take money from you to check your reference and for a fee they will tell them that you paid them to check them out.

  15. Krista M*

    I was recently dismissed while on probation. My job was extremely stressful. My manager went on sick leave and I did mine and her job. A new manager came in, worked me to the bone and dismissed me despite taking credit for my successes. I have had some trouble since getting a job and a few interviewers have asked for a manager from that workplace (despite having stellar references from that workplace and others). I do know the company is having serious financial issues and suspect that is the real reason for my termination while on probation (I was dismissed two weeks before being made permanent). How do I explain to future employers why I no longer work there and who ask for a supervisor reference? Please help. Desperate. My interviews have went very well but not job yet.

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