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Reference Checks: Everything you ever wanted to know

In my last post, I pulled back the curtain on the pre-employment background check process. Today, let’s talk about the background check’s sibling, the reference check.

If you’ve completed the interview process, your prospective employer will probably ask you to provide the names of several references. Why would they want to speak with people hand-selected by you to say nice things about you? 

I’m glad you asked. Here are three reasons:

ONE: Your prospective employer wants to validate their positive impressions of you. They loved you, but they want to be sure you weren’t just putting on a show for them. And while you did your best to give straight answers in the interview, they want to confirm that you have all the skills and abilities you claim to have. 

TWO: Employers need to demonstrate due diligence to minimize their risk of a negligent hiring claim. “Negligent hiring” means that an employer can be held liable for harm its employees inflict on third parties when the employer knew or should have known of the employee’s potential risk to cause harm, or if the risk would have been discovered by a reasonable investigation.

THREE: Finally, a conversation with your former manager or coworker can add insight into how you behave at work, validate your character, and even reveal information that you may not have shared during your interviews.

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What questions will they ask of my references? 

Some typical reference check questions might be:

  • How long have you known the candidate, and in what capacity?
  • What was your working relationship (supervisor/subordinate, or peer)?
  • What was the candidate’s role with your company?
  • What is the candidate’s greatest strength?
  • What would be an area of growth for this candidate?
  • What are some of the candidate’s notable accomplishments?
  • Why did the candidate leave your organization?
  • If you had the opportunity to work with this candidate again, would you?

Other areas to explore might be attendance, work ethic, and any skill-specific questions related to the job in question.

Finally, I always ask, What else about this candidate do you think we ought to know? Sometimes, this question ends up being the best, most enlightening one. This is why it’s so important to conduct references verbally, instead of in writing: Because there’s what you say, and then there’s how you say it.

Tips for providing a list of references

First of all, you do not need to state “References available upon request” on your resume. That’s how reference checking works: Hiring managers will request them, and then you’ll provide them. No need to state the obvious.

Include a brief note giving context on how you know each reference. For example: “Ian hired me at Emergis and I worked for him for 3 years there.” Or, “Steve was the second hire we made as the HR department at Spirent expanded due to rapid company growth; we worked together in HR for about 4 years.” 

Don’t list a reference without asking them first. Be sure to give them advance notice before they can expect a call (especially nowadays, when people tend not to answer calls if they don’t recognize the phone number).

Provide references representing a variety of relationships. Choose at least one former manager if possible. If the job is for a role where managing others is important, list a previous subordinate. If teamwork is key to the new role, include a peer with whom you worked on teams.  (If the prospective employer prefers all managers, for example, they will let you know and you should respond accordingly.)

Ideally, your references will be recent. Not from more than 5 or so years ago. Anything older than that and you risk the reference not having full memory of your amazing track record from the time you spent together. 

College senior or recent graduate? Professors and advisors should be willing to act as a reference, or at least write you a letter of recommendation or reference. And summer job supervisors are great, too.

What if my supervisor has since left the company where we worked together?

If you can find them, you can still list them! In fact, they may be more forthcoming with information if they feel unconstrained from your previous employer’s policies around providing references. If you aren’t in touch, this is a great time to reconnect on LinkedIn: Look them up, send a connection request and a personal note, and add them to your network.

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My last job departure was involuntary. What can I expect in terms of references from there?

The hiring manager will naturally want to know more about the circumstances around your departure. There are ways you can explain an involuntary separation that should not cause the hiring manager much concern. Unless, of course, you were terminated for cause or gross misconduct. But in general, employers won’t give a bad reference because they do not want to risk running afoul of defamation laws. Instead, they will offer to confirm simply the facts around your employment (the dates you worked there, your title, and maybe your salary), but decline to answer additional questions based on company policy, including eligibility for rehire. 

I’m not sure I can come up with three references, but I have a couple of letters of reference. Can I use those instead?

Sure, you can offer them, especially if there is some reason why there’s nobody at your prior employer who can vouch for you, or the business has ceased operations. The hiring manager would rather speak with someone, but sometimes, it’s simply not possible.

What about recommendations on LinkedIn?

I think these are great to have, and you can invite the hiring manager to view your profile and read them. Again, nobody is going to put their own reputation on the line if they don’t believe in you. In fact, it’s a good idea to make it a habit to request a quick LinkedIn recommendation whenever you change jobs, or complete a project, or have a great working relationship with a vendor or customer, so that you always have at least one recent recommendation.

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BONUS: Here’s a LinkedIn post that gives a winning formula for writing a great recommendation. You can share this with anyone you ask to write you one. You should also offer to return the favor!

To request a recommendation, navigate to your LinkedIn profile, scroll down to Recommendations, choose Ask to be recommended, type in the name of the connection and fill in the blanks. You may (should!) also include a personalized message with your request by changing the text in the message field.

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