employers that ask for references but never call them

A reader writes:

I have a question that’s more of a curiosity than a pressing concern, since I’m currently happily employed.

When I was searching for a job, I had two in-person interviews (each preceded by a phone interview) that seemed to go really well. Both teams of interviewers asked me for references, which I had brought along. In both instances, I contacted my references to give them a heads-up that they would probably receive a phone call — except they didn’t! Is it normal for people to ask for references and then not bother to call them? Do some hiring managers just do it as a perfunctory thing at the end of an interview?

I found it weird and sort of embarrassing to tell my references that they would get a call that never came. Is it a faux pas on their part or just an awkward-but-normal move? This was my first big job search after grad school so I wasn’t really sure what to expect (if only I’d had your site then!)

This is actually pretty common. It’s usually either because (a) they’re only going to call the references of the person they might an offer to but they haven’t yet decided who that will be, or (b) they suck at hiring. I’ll elaborate on both.

In the first category, employers nearly always only check references toward the very end of the hiring process — calling the references only of the person who they plan to make an offer to, or sometimes calling the references of their top two or three candidates, to help them make a decision. However, they’ll often ask for references earlier in the process, before they know which candidates they’ll actually want to check references on — so that once they’re ready to start reference checks, they already have the information that they need.

(In fact, some employers go so far as to ask for references with the initial application, which really annoys me — there’s no reason they need to collect that information from hundreds of people, when ultimately they’ll only need it for a few. They should wait until the interview stage, at least.)

In any case, it’s common to be asked for references once you make it to the interview stage so that they’re prepared if you do end up being a finalist.

And then there are the employers who just suck at hiring. These are the employers who ask for references because they know they’re supposed to but then end up not actually calling those references because (a) they’re lazy, (b) don’t realize how crucial it is to be thorough in something as important as selecting someone to hire, and/or (c) they don’t believe that reference-checking is that useful, generally because they’re doing it wrong. This last group is people who have done perfunctory reference checks that don’t ask particularly probing questions, and thus have come to believe that they don’t yield useful information. These are the people who say things like, “No one ever offers up references who will say bad things about them anyway” — which ignores that point that a good reference checking process isn’t about yes/no answers, but about nuance … and which also ignores the fact that employers can (and should) ask for other references if someone hasn’t offered up the ones the hiring manager is most interested in talking to (i.e., managers rather than peers, and especially managers from the most recent or most relevant positions).

As for whether you committed a faux paus in telling your references to expect a call that never came, absolutely not! This is really normal. You might want to phrase it in the future as “You might be getting a call from X about position Y,” rather than “you will be hearing from X in the coming days,” but either way, this is so common that you shouldn’t worry about it at all.

One thing that you should worry about: If you get a job offer from a company that you know never checked your references — and which doesn’t already have plenty of first-hand experience working with you. That’s a signal to you that this company might not have especially strong hiring — and hence management — practices, and that you should make sure you’ve really explored the culture and the manager and know that it’s a place you do want to work.

{ 57 comments… read them below }

  1. B*

    This has to be one of the most frustrating and infuriating parts of job searching. I had a firm at the end of a lengthy interview process say they wanted to proceed to the next step and contact my references. I gave them all 3, called mine to say a phone call would be coming, and then the firm fell off the face of earth. No more contact, nothing to my references, just blank emptiness. Beyond frustrating and rude.

    1. Sharon*

      I agree. That happened to me once, early in my career, but with my college transcripts instead of references. I had to go out of my way and pay money I could barely afford at the time to have the transcript sent to the employer, too. In hindsight, I think it was just something they could use to feign interest to politely get me out the door. Very, very rude.

      1. K*

        I’m not defending them disappearing and never getting back to you obviously – that’s just rude. But on asking for transcripts: is it possible that they just didn’t like what they saw there? (Though it seems much more humane to recent grads to allow for unofficial ones.)

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Or, another possibility in addition to the one K raises is that they were simply asking it of all finalist candidates at a certain stage, but ended up going with someone else. Employers don’t usually feel they have to feign reasons to reject someone; they’ll just reject them. It’s a pretty normal part of doing business.

  2. AdAgencyChick*

    It isn’t just employers who do this. When my husband and I moved into our current apartment, the management company (who isn’t even the landlord — we rent a condo from the owners of the unit) demanded no fewer than TWELVE references! (Three personal and three professional for each of us!) After we came up with that long list and informed each of those twelve people that they might get a phone call…not a single one was called. And the point of that was?

    1. fposte*

      40% weeding out people who don’t know and can’t make up six people to vouch for them, 60% making sure that space on the form was filled out.

  3. Esra*

    Maybe it’s an industry thing, but I’ve never had references called for a job. I guess with the portfolio they’ve already seen what you can do, so it might just be different for design.

  4. Cathy*

    For my current job, none of my official references were checked, but during the interview there was a lot of “hey, did you work with my friend x, when you were at y? and i see we’re also both connected to z on linked in.” I found out later that several of these former colleagues/mutual acquaintances were asked about me.

    I’ve done the same kind of unofficial check when I get a resume from someone I suspect a friend or my husband knows.

  5. anon*

    I thought this was one of the most humiliating aspects of job searching. I really worried that I was annoying/imposing on my references. So many applications require you to list all your references, and when I did get an interview, I felt like I had to alert my references that they might get a call, but the industry I’m in is so competitive it took me several years to actually get a new job offer after a string of interviews (luckily I was employed at the time). I would rather not have had my references know about each job I interviewed for and didn’t get. Ironically, when I did get a new job offer, they didn’t call my references. So after years of job searching and keeping my references in the loop, it didn’t matter anyway.

    It’s interesting that AAM sees not calling references as a red flag. My boss is pretty nutty, just really unprofessional at times, and it makes sense to me now that she got hired, because my boss’s boss (who makes the hiring decisions) didn’t put much effort into the hiring process.

  6. $.02*

    I am in the Accounting field, I hate to look for a job during the busy season Jan-May. Although I have stellar references, they are reluctant to receive numerous calls about reference checks during this time. I am happy if prospective employers don’t call even though I have positive references.

  7. Coelura*

    Not only have I never even been asked for references in job hunting, but my last two employers (both Fortune 100) do not allow references to be contacted. Also, none of my employers in the past 12 years have allowed employees to provide references. We are required to direct the call to HR, who only provides dates of service and title(s).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      For what it’s worth, I’ve never had trouble getting a reference from a manager at a company that claims not to provide references. HR follows that policy, but I’ve always found managers are willing to talk, even if it’s off the record.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          No special tricks! I’ve just found that managers are usually willing to talk, no matter what the policy says — especially if someone was really great.

          1. PEBCAK*

            My old manager is a really by-the-book kind of woman, and it worries me a lot that her refusal to talk will harm me. I’d happily offer up the performance reviews she wrote for me, though, so maybe a hiring manager would understand that she’s just a stickler for the rules.

            1. Jamie*

              Definitely keep the performance reviews, because some companies really are strict on the verifying employment only – no references thing.

              Off the record – if you were calling me and my company has a strict policy – I’m still pretty freaking chatty if someone was great. If you fall into the category of people I’d love to work with again I’ll give a references. Those references will never come back to bite you. Very few people will call your employer complaining that you told people how awesome they are when you were asked.

              For the other – and this won’t translate at all in type – but it’s in the tone. If you asked me you would absolutely be able to tell if I were just following policy (usually someone I don’t know well enough to vouch for, but I have nothing bad to say either) and someone where I’m not touching a reference with a 10 foot pole because if you don’t have anything nice to say…

              “I’m sorry – our company policy is to only verify dates of employment, title, and salary” said for the first scenario is light and coversational.

              In the second situation the tone is more like repeating over and over to Benson and Stabler that you have nothing to say until you speak to your lawyer.

              1. Anonymous*

                In the second situation the tone is more like repeating over and over to Benson and Stabler that you have nothing to say until you speak to your lawyer.

                OK, you owe me a keyboard and something to clean my screen with!

              2. PEBCAK*

                Yeah, it’s frustrating; I was a top employee, she literally cried when I gave notice, and has tried to hire me back more than once. When I asked if I could use her as a reference, she gave me the policy line.

                I will probably just say “they asked me to list former managers; you may get the call; feel free to refere them to HR if that’s what you are most comfortable with”, and then hope that she does, as in AAM’s experience, talk.

                I think the really weird part is that some reference-checking is now being done by e-mail. Why would anyone ever try to talk to a reference via paper trail?

                1. ARS*

                  I’ve had this. I was laid off and I know I was a good employee, if not stellar. However, my manager is so worried about getting in trouble with HR she won’t talk. When I tried going around that and using my Lead, she had to double check with my former manager who told her, no direct them to HR. I know my Lead would give me a good reference, so it’s incredibly frustrating to not be able to put them down.

            2. SCW*

              I had this happen to me. My former boss said she would act as a reference for me, but when they called her she said she couldn’t because of policy. This really freaked out the reference checkers, and my former boss actually suggested they see my evaluation. She told the reference checker that she would have good things to say, but couldn’t say anything. Now that place had a really wonky evaluation system, over eight pages, and they tended to try to keep people’s scores low–so I had a really good evaluation on their terms, but it would be hard for an outsider to see that. I sent off the evaluation and figured that was the last I would hear from them, but I did get the job! My current boss has mentioned repeatedly how strange she thought it was.

          2. Not So NewReader*

            I am trying to picture how one would shift the conversation.
            Former Boss: “I am sorry. Our HR handles all those questions.”
            HM: “Well, Former Boss, would you speak off the record?”

            It surprises me that so many managers are willing to go against company policy. I can see, though, that a good manager would understand the bigger picture and try to help a good employee.
            If they insist on referring to HR, do you see that as a red flag about the employee?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Usually they don’t even cite the policy. But if they do, I’ve always just said something like, “I’d love to hear from someone who actually worked closely with her,” and people start talking. It doesn’t take much cajoling. People want to give a good reference for someone great, and they’re generally willing (in my experience) to let you know when someone wasn’t.

              1. Beth*

                This is very interesting. One of my former employers has a general policy against supervisors providing references, but I’m sure most of them do, anyway. Although it’s a major institution, the whole “HR” concept, with policies and regulations (versus a “personnel” dept.) is new and many supervisors have been with that place forever.

                One of my other former employers has a VERY strict policy of requiring employees to direct all reference requests to HR, who will only confirm basic information. Violating this policy is a clear fireable offense. My husband is in upper management at this company and the only time he has ever given anyone a reference is when an employee was moving back to her native country and cried because in that work culture it’s impossible to get hired without a written letter of recommendation. She was a good employee and he gave her a letter of recommendation. But, he has worked there in management for ten years, has been called for references a lot, and that was literally the only time he gave a reference, even though he has plenty of good former employees. He makes sure even to keep his tone flat so as not to imply an opinion one way or the other.

                That same company now has had 100% turnover in HR since I worked there, so no HR rep. has known me personally. I can’t imagine the HR rep would imply anything one way or another with tone (and so no one calling SHOULD be reading anything into it, although they might try to do so.)

  8. Anony*

    I’m not so sure if I agree with bad reference checking = bad employers. Most employers at large companies don’t bother b/c they know they will get the “I can only verify dates/title” answer. Also, I think reference checking is more for upper level or management positions not necessary interns or low-level employees.

    1. Anony*

      Plus, what about those candidates who know that only their title and dates can be verified so they end up giving HR number instead of their manager’s.

      1. Cathy*

        I still act as a reference for many of my former direct reports, even though the companies we worked at had “employment verification only” policies. I no longer work there either, and don’t consider myself bound by those rules any longer.

        Even when I did work at those places, I would still give references for those I wanted to help, though I would ask to do it after hours or when I could be on my cell phone off the company’s premises.

      2. KarenT*

        Alison, at that link you have written:

        Call main switchboard numbers. If you know the reference works at XYZ Company, look up the company’s main number online, call that, and ask to be transferred to the person, rather than just calling the direct number you were given. It’s not unheard of for candidates to give you a friend’s phone number so the friend can pose as the former boss.

        What do you do when people say things like “my former manager doesn’t work any more, so here is her home number,” or “my manager travels a lot, here is his cell phone number.”

        1. KarenT*

          PS–Your post “don’t check references? here’s a horror story for you” contains absolutely amazing advice, and I have it printed in my hiring folder.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If they say the manager doesn’t work anymore, I’d still call the company to ask who the person’s manager had been and confirm that they really don’t work there anymore. And for the traveling manager, I’d still call their work number first and leave a message. If I didn’t hear back within a day or two, then I’d try the cell — but I’d take that measure to minimize the chances that they’d simply given me someone else’s cell number.

    2. jmkenrick*

      Actually, I worked with a woman who hired a low-level employee. He was great in the interview and she wasn’t really concerned about it.

      He came and worked steadily for a few weeks, showing them his work and participating in meetings. Then he called in sick for a few days. And then he just stopped coming in and answering his phone.

      They looked over his work and discovered that much of the processes he used were poor & messy. So, everything had to be redone, PLUS there was now the added expense of having to go through the hiring process all over again.

      That’s kind of an extreme example, but the better question is – why wouldn’t you put more effort into the hire upfront to ensure that you have the best employee for the job, no matter the position?

      It’s like buying a used car…if you put the time and money and research into the initial purchase, you’ll save lots of worry and stress when it comes to maintenance.

    3. Liz in a library*

      I have to disagree that reference checking isn’t important for lower level employees. I’ve gotten extremely valuable information from reference checks on student workers that helped us avoid making a bad decision.

  9. Maria*

    I’ve been wondering about something related, in that would they ever call those references they demand up front before an interview? Sounds like not, they just want the info at the ready? I applied at a lot of colleges that all wanted references with your initial application.

    1. fposte*

      I got called for a reference about somebody who hadn’t been interviewed yet. They did it this way because candidates had to travel interstate for the interview on their own dime and they wanted to make sure it was worth that investment. I don’t know exactly how they worked it–I presume they only called the references of the top candidates, so I don’t think it was the same as getting all applicants’ references up front–but I could actually see the logic of it. Especially as the person they called about was so great that they may just have been going with her and a backup plan, and they didn’t need the backup plan.

      1. PEBCAK*

        I guess if you are looking for huge red flags, this is okay, but I’ve found reference checks to be most valuable after meeting the candidates, so you better know what to ask. I really hope the company you are describing doesn’t plan to call references before AND after.

        1. fposte*

          No, they just called me before and hired her after. They had already had a phone interview with her and presumably felt they had enough to go on from there. I don’t know if I’d do it that way, but I think the consideration for candidate’s travel spending was at least conceptually a good thing.

  10. PEBCAK*

    AAM, isn’t there a third possibility: they have some insider knowledge? A woman applied at my company who I had managed not too long ago at a previous company. Obviously, the hiring manager walked over to my office, said “Mildred’s resume says she used to work at Acme, do you know her?” and we had a very long chat about Mildred. I don’t know who else Mildred listed as references, but assuming she didn’t want her current manager to know she was job searching, that would leave either managers prior to the time when she was reporting to me or peers, which are likely to be far less valuable.

    I think that in some smaller industries, this is very common.

    1. Jamie*

      My industry is like this – at least locally. There tends to be a lot less than 6 degrees of separation between most people, so odds are that someone at the company to which you’re applying either worked with you or with someone who knows you.

      This is why reputation is so important – especially in niche industries.

  11. different perspective*

    I’m a young professional. While I was searching for my first job out of graduate school, l hoped employers wouldn’t bother checking my references. I couldn’t list any of my professors as references because I was not a very diligent student and had mediocre grades, so I listed my supervisors from internships. However, the quality of my work when I was an intern was not nearly as good as it is today. I am also embarrassed at some of the unprofessional things I did when I was an intern. For instance, I frequently arrived late to all of my internships. I have matured a great deal since that time- a long period of unemployment will do that for you. I am never late and frequently early at my current job, and I always strive to produce great work product. I cringe to think that I don’t have great references from the past. I wish I could go back in time and smack the younger version of myself sometimes.

    This may be a big no-no, but I didn’t contact my references every single time I anticipated that they might get a call. I simply asked them after I graduated whether they would be willing to serve as my references, and assumed that their yes answer would be good for at least a year.

    1. PEBCAK*

      As far as being polite to your references, it’s fine to say “I expect to be job hunting for the next six months or so, can I use you as a reference” without checking in each time. However, if you do this, you are really missing out on the opportunity to properly coach them. When you have made it to a second or third round interview, you should ideally have some idea of what your references can best stress to the hiring manager.

      For example, “I think you may be hearing from Alison Green in the next few days. I got the impression that she was really impressed by my technical skills, but was uncertain how well I’d adjust to a non-for-profit environment where a lot of the work is done by unpaid volunteers. It would be helpful if you could emphasize how well I managed resources who weren’t officially on our team during Project RUACH, because I think that will speak well to how I am able to motivate people who aren’t direct reports.”

      In short, you want to anticipate what will strengthen your entire package, and let your references know in advance.

      1. OP*

        Hi! I’m glad to see from all the discussion on this thread that other people have experienced the same thing I did. I am a big fan of this advice- my references were great and always wanted to know details about the job I had interviewed for and what my responsibilities would be so they could give detailed answers about how my work with them or their knowledge of my skills applied. That was part of the frustration/embarrassment on my part- I felt I was wasting their time, and also it was a bit of a bummer when they said “Oh, this job sounds great for you!” and then… nothing. Job searching is definitely a self-esteem modulator.

  12. Joey*

    I think there’s one other possibility. They didn’t think the references would be useful. I know when I get references that can’t speak first hand or give relevant info I won’t contact them. References that look like friends, old professors or from old jobs come to mind. But I wouldve clarified that.

  13. Zebediah*

    I was ASTOUNDED that my current employer (a Fortune 500 firm with which I’ve been for two years) never contacted my references. In fact, I don’t even recall being asked for them. (I expect that they’d have validated my prior employment, tho’ — 6 years with another firm in the same (highly regulated) industry.)
    An industry-specific phenomenon? A recognition of increasingly litigious times?

  14. Sarah*

    I have been applying online to different jobs and yes! I have had to put down all my references as well as all kinds of documents, etc.

    I have noticed that twice now the system generated emails to my references but I have not been called for an interview. It seems really frustrating to me that my references are being asked to fill out an email sent form, but I have not been contacted to interview. I don’t like these people to be bothered any more than necessary, but especially not if I haven’t even met the people at the company.

    It seems that the best jobs I have had I interviewed, they liked me and I liked them and then, only after all that – were my references contacted. My contacts are very positive and so I don’t believe that is why I am not being called, but still it seems too invasive especially considering that I am not being considered for the job.

    I am not a big fan of these online applications!

    1. Jamie*

      I have never understood why anyone would contact a reference before meeting with a person. It seems like such a lack of respect for others’ time.

      References should be checked, imo, much later in the process when a candidate is under serious consideration.

  15. keeplooking*

    yes, it is just so weird that i was contacted a few days after the second interview for references, but the referees were never called or emailed after a week. I was told that I made to the top 3. I haven’t heard back as the said time frame passed. i am really fond of the job, but what can i do? there’s nothing that i can control now. i am wondering if i should follow up or just let it go.

  16. angela*

    I had an interview which I thought went particularly well exactly 2 weeks ago. They said they were 1 – 2 weeks away from making a decision, once they concluded next steps with another candidate the following week. They responded to my “thank you emails”. HR actually mentioned that I did well on my interviews.

    A weeks goes by and I decided to check in with them and see how the process was going. I got no response to that email and heard nothing from them for the next 4 days. On Wed, I received and email from HR saying that they were moving forward in the process and that I should forward them my references.

    What does that mean? Could it be just part of their protocol or am I getting a offer? It has been 2 days since I provided my references and I know that they have not been called yet

  17. Beth*

    Here’s a question… is it always a bad sign if a company doesn’t ask for references? I applied for a position at a fairly large (1200+ employees) and well-known company in my field. The online application allows applicants to apply via LinkedIn (which I did, which I suppose gives them access to your connections) and also requires applicants to sign a waiver permitting the company to contact anyone they want for a reference, and releasing your references from liability. But, it does not ask for references or information about previous supervisors.

    I had a great phone interview (lasted almost an hour and a half) and was flown out – at their expense and direct-billed – for a day of interviews, and to give a presentation. All signs point to it having gone well, although I know they must have flown out a few strong candidates. When I met with HR at the end of the day, the woman was really enthusiastic, went over benefits, etc., but never asked for references.

    Is this necessarily a bad sign? Should I expect that if I don’t get a call later asking for references that I will not be extended an offer? Or, could it be that they prefer to find my references themselves and may even have already contacted companies before deciding to fly me out and put me up in a suite? In the past I have always had to provide references at least by interview time, if not at the point of application (which frankly really annoys me and turns me off.)

  18. Ktown*

    So… I had an interview last Monday. It went very well! The person who interviewed me was not the guy who was going to be my boss but since my boss is in another province he was the one to interview
    Me. He said that he really likes me and asked for some references. He said the process should take about two weeks until I accepted an offer and that the other boss will probably fly down to meet me. The company called my references on that Friday. Now it is the following week Thursday. My references were perfect no problem there but now I see that they have reposted the add. I sent an email yesterday to see if I could get an update but no one has replied to the email. I made sure at the interview to let me know right away if they decided not to hire me. Why would they do that? The guy who interviewed me was aware that me giving my references could Jepordise my job.

    1. WestSider2013*

      Hi K-Town!

      I am in the similar boat!

      I had a stellar interview and I bet the president of the company could have hired me on the spot but my interview overlapped with the next person. Later that day I received an e-mail from the person who coordinated the interview telling that they all enjoyed meeting me and to please forward (3) references.

      I am certain they were all good references and made sure to follow-up three days after I know they were all checked. I basically just asked if I was still being considered and she responded telling me that they were still in the midst of the interview process and they would get back to me by early in the week. It’s now mid-week, NOTHING. I had another interview today and moving on with my life.

      I am considering withdrawing from their consideration because they are taking too long which makes me question about wnating to work for a company that obviously can’t make decisions in a timely manner. Another thing is courtesy– is this the way they treat their clients? Even if they did not hire me, at least have the courtesy to let me know they went foward with another candidate. That’s it, simple! I am really seeing this as a sign…

      But hang in there! If you really want this position, follow up with them and let them know you are still interested. But a lot of times, things don’t happen for a reason! Keep moving forward and apply to other companies, let them take their time because they are affording you time to land something better!!! GOOD LUCK!!

  19. Darcy*

    This is a strange comment to make, but what if all of your business references have died or retired? I used to work at a Bridal store and both the owner and the manager have passed on since I left.
    My other job (at a supermarket) changed owners at the time I left and retired to the country so I don’t have any record of their contact details.

  20. MonicaP25*

    Hi There,

    I got through 3 round of interviews, and was told the process was coming along well and that the next step was a background and reference check. It has now been almost 3 weeks and I have not heard anything, and they have stopped responding to my e-mails. Any Advice?

  21. SeekingEmployment*

    Sometimes companies do not check as they are happy with the prospective employee as they are. In addition to this, most reference checks only ask start date, end date, job title and pay.

  22. Lynda Kel*

    After i graduated from college as a mature student, i quickly applied for an internship in a local company. I received a response almost straight away i should of heard the alarm bells ringing then. I checked to find that none were contacted. I was given a further 12 month contract to find that i was laid off not quiet 6 months into my new contract. I was generally kept on to fill a gap the company was being restructured and part of the business was being sold to a bigger investor i was told all the way through i was being kept on all jobs were to be saved. well low and be hold i was given 3 days notice just after due diligence was complete, i was let go without a by or leave, which had a massive effect on my confidence, i was in total shock for a long time. When i contacted the boss for a reference he told me to call a few days later.. to find he had not written a reference. The boss basically told me he did not know how to write a reference and he told me to put a reference together and he would sign it..

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