pushing back on unreasonable reference requests: a success story

Here’s a success story from a reader.

I just wanted to share a quick success I had today. I’ve seen a lot of comments/posts on your site about reference companies that are very pushy about trying to get their long surveys completed. I got an email this morning asking me to provide four references to SkillSurvey, and it sounded like one of companies that have demonstrated concerning behavior, so I did a little more research and, in addition to an onerous process, they also use the information provided for targeted ads. That was a hard no for me — my references are doing me a favor, I’m not repaying that by getting them spammed.

The thing is, I applied for this job just because it seemed interesting, not because I’m actively looking, so if it doesn’t work out, that’s okay. I emailed the HR contact, laid out the reasons I’m uncomfortable providing SkillSurvey with any information, and said I’d provide my references to them directly, but understood if we couldn’t move forward. The hiring manager called (not knowing about my message) and I gave a rundown and said I didn’t want to waste their time scheduling an interview if HR was going to say I was ineligible. They told me they were ultimately in charge, they wanted me to come in, and they’d work it out with HR if I was their final pick.

I don’t think I ever would’ve thought to push back on something like that if I hadn’t been reading your site for so long. I always thought I had to accept whatever was asked of me as a candidate, so I just wanted to say thank you for giving people a place to learn how and when to speak up. Maybe they won’t stop using SkillSurvey, but at least there’s a chance they’ll look at it a little more in-depth now.

{ 73 comments… read them below }

  1. UnCivilServant*

    Forgive my ignorance – what are reference companies? what role do they play in the hiring process, exactly?

    1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

      Third party companies with websites specifically designed for the grunt work of collecting reference stuff. Instead of somebody in HR calling your references, it’s all done via email and web forms by this third party.

      1. UnCivilServant*

        I see.

        I always did the reference checks myself. The idea of even letting HR handle it, let alone an outside agent just doesn’t seem like it would get me the unspoken information from the contact. The tone and turn of phrase of the answer says as much or more than the words, so it never occurred to me that other people would outsource it.

        1. badger*

          They’re super common in government jobs. I got near-identical surveys multiple times for a former supervisor I’d agreed to be a reference for (after we both left our mutual employer) and every single one involved a state position. There might be a couple of questions specific to the role, but a lot of it was the same stuff over and over.

          I don’t know if it was SkillSurvey, it was 3-4 years ago. Might’ve been. Might be harder to push back against the state if every agency is told they have to use it, though.

          1. UnCivilServant*

            My whole career has been with the state (thus the username), and this is the first I’m seeing it. I would then have to conclude it varies from state to state whether they use it.

            1. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

              Echoing same, fellow state government. As HR, I don’t want to be doing reference checks unless I happen to be the hiring manager (so, for my staff!). I much prefer this be done by the hiring managers.

              1. Abogadx*

                My boss in municipal government is absolutely fanatical about speaking personally with every reference because it’s so hard to let someone go in government, she wants absolutely every scrap of info she can find before hiring

        2. Chauncy Gardener*

          I always do reference checks myself too. I like to really hear what the person is saying and how they’re saying it. A form really gives me nothing of value IMHO

        3. Anon in Canada*

          The advantage of outsourcing it to a specialized company is about language.

          If you do reference checks yourself and you have a candidate who used to live in a country or location where the language isn’t English, you can’t check references. This often means that candidates get rejected because of the location of their previous jobs: if you have to choose between a candidate for whom you can check references, and one that you can’t because the companies are somewhere that doesn’t speak English, who are you going to choose? It’s obvious.

          Specialized reference-checking companies should have employees who speak a wide variety of languages in order to get around this problem, and therefore not auto-reject candidates whose references otherwise couldn’t be checked.

    2. RC*

      I think they are websites that make reference checks automated— by which I mean making the reference fill out dozens of little radio buttons ranking skills of the applicant (I think there are open text boxes too).

      I actually had to do one of these a few months ago; it felt silly and useless and certainly a waste of my time compared to a quick phone conversation but I didn’t want to tank the job prospects of the person who listed me as a reference so I did it.

      1. UnCivilServant*

        It does sound like more of an ask of the reference than just a quick phone conversation.

        1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

          The only plus to it from the reference’s point of view is that you can do it bit by bit on your own time, instead of being chained to a 15-minute phone call.

          1. Banana Pyjamas*

            It took me 30 minutes to do one of those online surveys. A 15 minute phone call would have been better.

          2. UnCivilServant*

            With a phone call you can tell the human on th other end “I’ve got a conflict coming up in a few minutes,” and offer a different time to pick up unless the reference checker doesn’t have any more questions.

    1. Emperor Kuzco*

      Thanks for sharing that link, I pulled this bit of relevant info (I think) from it:

      How We Share Personal Data

      iCIMS limits access to personal data to only those who need access to perform their tasks and duties, and to third parties who have a legitimate purpose for processing or accessing it. As such, we may share personal data as described in this Services Notice to the following categories of recipients:

      To our subsidiaries, affiliates, or their or our successors or assigns (including those located outside the European Economic Area (“EEA”), the United Kingdom (“UK”), and Switzerland) as necessary to support provision of the Subscription.

      To Survey Recipients, peer references, and other third parties when necessary to deliver the Subscription to our Subscriber.

      To our private equity investors, Vista Equity Partners and TA Associates, and their affiliates, contractors, service providers, and other third parties, including Vista Consulting Group, which will process the personal data on the basis of its legitimate interests in overseeing the administration, research, and business operations of iCIMS.

      To our contractors, business partners, and service providers who require the data to assist us in providing, supporting, and securing our Subscription and to assist with providing services on behalf of our Subscribers, provided such parties provide at least the same level of privacy protection as is required of iCIMS. These companies are authorized to use personal data only as necessary to provide these services to us.

      To a potential buyer (and its agents and advisors) and our agents and advisors in connection with any proposed merger, acquisition, or any form of sale or transfer of some or all of our assets (including in the event of a reorganization, dissolution or liquidation), in which case Subscriber Data and personal data held by us about our Subscribers and Users will be among the assets transferred to the buyer or acquirer.

      To our subsidiaries, affiliates, agents, advisors, contractors, business partners, and service providers as necessary for iCIMS’ legitimate business operations incident to administration and delivery of our Subscription to Subscribers, and for our other legitimate purposes relating to iCIMS’ business operations, including account, billing, contracting, internal reporting, communication, customer support, and security management purposes.

      To a third party under the following circumstances where we, in good faith,: (i) believe we are compelled by applicable law or regulation, judicial request from a court of competent jurisdiction, or another legal process or government order (in each case, where iCIMS is unable to resist such disclosure); (ii) find it necessary to exercise, establish or defend our legal rights; (iii) seek to enforce or apply the terms of the Subscription Agreement; (iv) seek to protect iCIMS’ rights or property; (v) seek to protect iCIMS, our Subscribers, or the public from harm or illegal activities; (vi) seek to respond to an emergency which requires us to disclose data to prevent harm; or (vii) rely on your consent.
      To the general public when Subscribers use functionality within the Subscription to make certain content containing Subscriber Data publicly available. For example, all materials, comments, and other content shared on or through iCIMS Video Studio are subject to being shared with job applicants, website visitors, and social media followers who are under no obligation of confidentiality, and therefore such content is public.

      In accordance with a Subscriber’s instructions.

      Please note that we do not sell (as defined in applicable data protection and privacy laws) personal data (and will not sell it without providing any required notices and/or opt-in/opt-out rights).

      1. RedinSC*

        So, what I’m reading here is that, “iCIMS limits access to personal data to only those who need access” which is EVERYONE on the planet, including any marketing firm, I think I read that correctly?

        1. Brain the Brian*

          I’ll be honest, I don’t think so. “Subscribers” are the companies for whom iCIMS is managing data, so of course each subscriber needs access to the data iCIMS is managing for them. Other than subscribers (who can control the data iCIMS is managing in specific ways, including providing it to marketing firms if their own data agreements allow it), this basically says iCIMS can provide data to their ownership group, potential buyers if the company is being sold, and business partners as needed to carry out legitimate business purposes (like if someone’s data file is corrupted and they need a specialist company to un-corrupt it). I’m not a lawyer, but that’s how it reads to me.

          I still don’t love the idea of submitting something like this through a third-party instead of just having a phone call, but I don’t think their terms and conditions allow them to give personal data they collect to anyone for any reason.

      2. Contracts Killer*

        Looks like someone has a data privacy attorney who is trying very hard not to run afoul of the GDPR law in the EU and the hefty fines that can accompany them. This isn’t my main area of law, but from my basic understanding of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), this is insufficiently vague. It will be interesting to see if anyone actually challenges their privacy policy and what the enforcing country(ies) will do.

    2. Archi-detect*

      I’m still not going to read it, but it being that long means they really are getting a lot out of the data they are getting in (for their benefit alone of course)

    3. TheBunny*

      Egads. Would be less work in their part not to even have a privacy policy. Or one that says “if we receive it, we’re using it”.

  2. Bruce*

    Reference checking companies selling ads? We are rapidly approaching the future portrayed in a Subnormality comic, this would fit right in with the current page #233 at viruscomix.com

  3. Nicosloanita*

    I wish we as a culture had a better ethic around information-sharing. It’s one thing if you decide you want to download whatever app, enter your email or phone number into whatever service, or accept whatever cookie from whatever website. But there’s a lot of services whose goal is to get third-party data too, about your friends or customers. It’s often very hard to see where that information goes when you accept the terms of service.

    1. Dawn*

      This is a little bit anecdotal, but there’s a published instance in America of Target collecting so much information about their customers – and this is going back 10, 15 years – that their automatic systems started sending them coupons for baby products even before they knew they were pregnant. Rather infamously, it (allegedly) outed a young woman’s pregnancy to her parent.

      1. djx*

        I think that’s described in the talk “How Designers Destroyed the World” by designer Mike Monteiro. It’s on YouTube and well worth a listen.

      2. Nutmeg*

        Funny enough, something similar happened to me. I started getting a lot of wedding ads in Facebook. Turns out my now-husband had been researching engagement rings.

        It didn’t ruin the surprise, I knew the ring and the proposal was coming. But wow, imagine if our communication hadn’t been so good.

        1. Bruce*

          Wow… and I was creeped out just by ads being served to me that reference things I’d been talking about (and I don’t use Alexa or other voice activated aids… though my phone and PC are probably listening to me 24/7!)

      3. ICodeForFood*

        This is a well-known instance of ‘successful’ predictive analytics… A statistician at Target was specifically asked if he could predict pregnancies based on the purchases made by women who were known to be pregnant, and the effort was successful. The systems weren’t automated; it was an early experiment in intentional predictive analytics that actually worked.
        Article at https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html?unlocked_article_code=1.4k0.EaEj.BRuEMXk_osot&smid=url-share
        I’m not weighing in on the morality of this effort… but the customers knew they were pregnant, though their parents didn’t necessarily know, and it was an intentional marketing effort. And it really is kind of amazing…

    2. Ally McBeal*

      I wish I’d known at age 18, when Facebook had just started spreading beyond Harvard Yard, that I was receiving this “free” service because *I* am actually the product. I don’t know that I would’ve declined to create a profile – it was 2004, basically everyone who was eligible for a profile had one – but I’d like to think I would’ve been more circumspect about what I posted and how much time I spent on the platform.

    3. AFac*

      I’m actually unhappy with how many apps I have to download just to do simple things, like see a menu or schedule appointments or rent a bicycle. It’s one thing if I know I’m doing enough business with the company to make it worth the hassle and privacy concerns; it’s another thing if I’m just trying to rent a bike to do touristy stuff in a random city which I don’t plan to visit again for the next decade.

      1. UnCivilServant*

        If the business expects me to download anything unless it’s software I have intentionally purchased, they will lose me as a potential customer in a heartbeat.

        Trebly so if it’s a menu.

      2. Artemesia*

        infuriating. I had to download an app to do a load of laundry in Montpellier at an apartment hotel. Gone are coin operated devices or even credit card operated devices — you need to download an app and get caught in their web to do any simple thing.

      3. Llama Doc*

        I refuse to downloads apps. End of story. If you ask most places have way to get the.service without one.

      4. Bruce*

        My employer gave out fancy water bottles with an internet-connected base, it is supposed to flash lights to remind us to hydrate. To activate the internet functions I have to download and register with an app. Fortunately the electronics are in a plug that unscrews, and the actual water drinking function does not require internet service :-/

    4. BKB*

      My daughter’s school had a fundraiser last year where students (middle schoolers) were encouraged to collect and turn in phone numbers and email addresses for all of their relatives. I could not imagine a worse idea.

      1. Cracked rib*

        Were they getting paid for the phone numbers and email addresses directly, or was it slightly disguised?

      2. allathian*

        Ugh, I’m glad that would mean a breach of GDPR here. Your own address book/contact list is exempt for personal use, but not if you use that list to promote a business, either your own or someone else’s. After GDPR went into force, MLMs have pretty much disappeared where I am.

        A school here could ask the parents to forward a link to a sign-up form to their contacts without breaching GDPR, but that’s about it.

    5. Beveled Edge*

      I’ve found the following in health provider software privacy policies:
      1) Collect advertiser identifiers from your browser
      2) Track all of your searching and browsing history

      The health providers were surprised when I notified them what their software was doing to their patients. So don’t expect the companies buying software to have done their due diligence beforehand.

  4. FricketyFrack*

    Oh hey, I wrote this. I didn’t expect it to be published, I really just wanted to thank Alison and the commentariat for the knowledge that this was even a thing I could do. As an update, I interviewed with the department director and a manager, and they both found it very concerning that SkillSurvey is selling the info provided to them, so I’m hoping they’ll take some action. I didn’t ultimately get the job, but I’m 99.9% sure it’s because I did a bad job of explaining my preferred work style, not because I pushed back on the references.

    I think anyone who *can* push back on things like this should. I talked to a friend around the same time who had just completed a couple of references on SkillSurvey and she said it was very time consuming, the company was super pushy with their emails, and most of the questions didn’t really seem relevant to the position, which tracks with what I’ve read. Anyone in HR looking to automate that part of the hiring process should really rethink it.

    1. Scout Finch*

      YAY for you! Thank you for taking the time to report your awesome success.
      Sending you good juju for your job-hunting endeavors.

      1. FricketyFrack*

        Thank you! I’m not even really job hunting at this point. :) I only applied for that job because it was an interesting opportunity with room for growth, but I’m happy where I am. I don’t see myself making an effort to leave for at least a few years unless something really special shows up on my radar.

  5. Beka Cooper*

    I just got a job offer (like an hour ago! yay!), and the reference process used this company. I’m in a higher ed staff position and was interviewing to move to a position in a different department that I’ve hoped would open up for a while. They asked for 5 references, which was already a bit tricky for me because one of my usual references was the director of the department this position was in. Then, I asked a third colleague from my department, and it turned out they were interviewing for the same role!

    Then it turned out that all 5 references HAD to complete the survey before the hiring committee could make a decision. I’d figured they asked for 5 just in case they couldn’t get a hold of all of them. But nope! Two of the references had to be direct supervisors, and my supervisor in a previous job is retired and the whole department no longer exists. I had a pretty panicky Friday of scrambling to get a hold of her or figure out what other previous supervisor I could use, because my previous jobs were irrelevant and quite long ago.

    It also is kind of irritating that the results of the reference surveys are aggregated and anonymized, so they don’t actually know who is answering what. I feel like it kind of dampens the references from my supervisors. But also, how anonymous can it be with 5 people?

    There was one benefit–I applied for a second position in the same department, and they were able to re-use my recent references survey for that one too. The colleague I was competing against in the first job got that one, and I got the second job.

    1. UnCivilServant*


      With the way my past supervisors retire and move on, I’m hard pressed to conjure up the typical three.

      When calling candidates references, I generally expect one or two to not answer within the hiring decision time frame, so requiring more than customary must respond references before making a decision seems more than a little out there to me.

      1. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

        My prior supervisors (not including my current job) are dead, dead, I think alive but with advanced dementia. This is what happens when you work in an industry with supervisors who do not ever retire. Oh wait, I do have one that is still living. he retired from that industry and lives off grid somewhere, so I am sure he will be right on that survey.

        1. SHEILA, the co-host*

          Similar situation. My current boss is obviously reachable, but her predecessor retired and kept in touch for a while but has since fallen off the face of the earth, and, having been at this job 15 years, I’d be hard pressed to find any prior supervisors. No idea who is still in the same job, has moved on, etc. I’m pretty sure at least one has likely passed away at this point.

      2. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

        Yeah, I would also struggle with 5. I could do it, but it would be a challenge. I have 2 for certain and two more I could wrangle pretty easily if I needed to, but that seems excessive. (Outside of my current supervisor.)

        1. Ro*

          Do they like not plan for death or retirement?

          I had one job search (for my third ever job), and they wanted my direct managers for both my previous jobs. One of those jobs was overseas and my direct manager did not speak English (I was at Uni and offered my former universities foreign student department to confirm I worked while at Uni- I had to change my visa and they had to approve it), the other job my manager had since died (I offered his replacement who used to work at the same level as me so worked with me but never managed me).

          I mean do reference checkers think no one dies/retires/moves country?

    2. OrigCassandra*

      It’s like some places don’t actually want to hire anybody, the ridiculous barriers they put up.

    3. Charlie*

      Yeah either we work at the same place or this is just very typical for higher ed, because my current job also required 5 references to fill out a little form with 2 of them being direct supervisors. For an internal position! But yes in my experience they’re flexible about reusing them (since the questions are standard across positions).

    4. Rooby*

      Almost a decade ago when applying for a front desk job, I got the contingent offer only to discover the reference software required 5 references (3 of them supervisors?) to fill out the survey within the next 24 HOURS.

      I did get the job but ctfo.

    5. Meg*

      I don’t think I could come up with 5, especially not supervisors. I obviously couldn’t ask my current job, my last two were toxic dumpster fires that I left out of abuse and ethical concerns (only supervisors were the owners) and I haven’t worked with the people who would give me glowing references from the job before that in over a decade. I thankfully didn’t even need references for my current job.

    6. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

      Five? And a 100% response rate?

      So the ideal candidate for this position is a frequent job-hopper who stays connected to all of their previous supervisors on social media?

    7. anonymouse*

      Wow. Before my current job I was freelance for 15 years and before that I was in another field entirely. So I haven’t even had five supervisors in this field and I doubt I could track down the ones from the previous one. Hope I don’t need to look for work any time soon!

  6. buddleia*

    I love any kind of story where someone speaks up in their own best interest and makes a positive difference, however small. Bravo OP!

  7. TheBunny*

    Well done LW.

    I’m honestly shocked they think using the info you provide to add the people to mailing lists is a good idea.

    I’m also disgusted as they are banking on most job seekers not being in a position to walk away.


  8. Jo*

    skillsurvey is used by some major organizations nowadays.

    When I got my current job (higher Ed) it was simply a role at another department but I still had to get the 5 references!

    my recruiter gave me the lowdown at least so I franticly sent emails to my references and advised of this crazy new tool. Iirc they all complied, but one did comment on how weird it was!

  9. Slbat*

    What’s everyone’s take on job postings that ask for references with the initial application? I frequently see “cover letter, resume, and 3 references.” How much will it hurt my application if I don’t include references? (I have references, I just don’t want to be wildly throwing around their contact info.)

    1. Dawn*

      Alison has covered this one a number of times before so you might want to search the archives, but the short answer is: “In some cases with unreasonable employers, or those with unusually rigid hiring processes, it might hurt your candidacy to push back, so you have to weigh that possibility, but in most cases it will be fine to indicate that you will provide references once you are further into the process and have determined that the job would be a good fit.”

      Or something to that effect.

  10. Beveled Edge*

    I posted this in a thread above but it really should be its own post…

    I’ve found the following in health provider software privacy policies:
    1) Collect advertiser identifiers from your browser
    2) Track all of your searching and browsing history

    The health providers were surprised when I notified them what their software was doing to their patients. So don’t expect the companies buying software to have done their due diligence beforehand. These were the platforms you needed to sign into to schedule virtual appointments with these health providers.

    1. Dawn*

      The day I stopped casually allowing cookies was the day I logged onto a site intended to provide me a service, I don’t even remember which, and they said “We and our 764 advertising partners would like to place cookies on your system…”

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