“Résumés win interviews, but references win job offers,” says Martin Yate, author of the “Knock ‘Em Dead” series of career books.
Reference checks are important for both job seekers and employers. References are a chance for employers to add to the information they learned from your résumé and in the interview — and what they find out from your references will either confirm their desire to hire you, or make the decision not to extend the job offer. A great reference will help the hiring manager feel good about their decision to hire you.
The definition of “reference” includes two important functions in a job search. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a reference is “a person to whom inquiries as to character or ability can be made.” A reference is also defined as “a statement of the qualifications of a person seeking employment or appointment, given by someone familiar with the person.”
Reference checks are often part of a comprehensive employment screening program, which can also include verification of employment eligibility as it relates to immigration status, credit checks, and background checks.
According to a 2010 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, 76 percent of organizations conduct reference background checks for all job candidates. The survey defined “reference background checks” as verification of information provided by a job applicant or communication with people regarding the job applicant. This statistic did not include credit and criminal background checks.
Job seekers applying for positions with access to confidential information (related to other employees or the company’s clients) were most likely to be subject to reference checks, as were candidates for financial positions, information technology jobs, and frontline/customer-facing positions.
Some companies will check your references; some won’t. You should prepare your references for the companies that do (as well as for the ones that ask for your references, but never use them).
The first step is identifying who you should consider to be your references.
Selecting Your References
Generally, a potential employer will want at least two of your references to be former employers. The advantage of preparing your references is that you can take the upper hand and identify the “best” references and control who you offer the employer as your references. (You can provide your list of “preferred” references, in the order you’d like to have them contacted. That doesn’t guarantee that the prospective employer won’t contact people who aren’t on your reference list, but sometimes they will take what you give them.)
You will want to select 3-7 individuals to be your “preferred” references. These individuals may be current or former managers or supervisors, co-workers, peers, or team members, current or former customers of the company, vendors or suppliers, and people you have supervised. If you don’t have recent work experience, it can be members of committees you volunteer with, or pro bono clients (unpaid work experience is still work experience!). If you have recent educational experience, you can also ask professors, faculty members, and advisors.
Select someone who knows your work well. You want someone who has seen you in action and can speak to your abilities. It’s better to have someone who can speak to your skills and accomplishments than a “big name” on your list of professional references. If someone seems hesitant to serve as your reference, ask someone else.
There are a couple of reasons to also consider including “personal” references. These individuals meet the criteria of providing “character” references. The main criteria for personal references is that it should not be a relative. A personal reference should know you well, and have known you for a significant period of time (at least five years). Possible personal references include business acquaintances, coaches, neighbors, and community leaders.
Start Contacting Your References Early
The best time to start thinking about your references is when you’re putting together your résumé, not when you’re submitting applications. You shouldn’t wait until you’re getting called in for interviews to contact people you want to use as references.
It can take some time to track down and reach references, catch them up on where you’re at in your career, and obtain their contact information. You don’t want to try to do that while you’re researching and preparing for a job interview.
If you’re also asking your reference to provide a Recommendation for you on your LinkedIn profile, you also won’t have all of your Recommendations coming in on the same date, or within two or three days of each other.
Also, having your references ready when they are requested shows professionalism. If your goal is to get a job, you should be ready to provide references when asked.
Getting Permission From Your References
Once you’ve decided who you would like to be your “preferred” references, you should always contact these individuals and ask permission to use them as a reference. Call your references directly (don’t just email them). Ask for an in-person meeting, if at all possible.
Keep in mind: Not everyone you’ve worked for — or worked with — will be a good reference for you. You want a reference that can be as enthusiastic about you as you are about getting the job. Not all potential references will be able to provide this kind of stellar recommendation. But some of your references may be hesitant to say no to you directly if you ask.
So you can give them a way to let themselves off the hook, without turning you down directly. Instead of asking, “Will you be a reference for me?” Ask them, “Do you feel you know me well enough to serve as a reference for me?” Or ask, “Will you be a great reference for me? (If the answer is anything less than enthusiastic, you can collect their information, but not list them on your “preferred” reference list. It’s perfectly fine to ask a reference to support you, but then not use them on some jobs, or not at all.)
This is also an appropriate time to ask them for a LinkedIn Recommendation (check and see if they are on LinkedIn first, as they will need a LinkedIn Account to recommend you).
You also want to update them on what you’ve been up to (especially if they knew you at a previous job) and what you’re looking for in your next job.
Immediately send a letter or email thanking them for serving as a reference, and provide a current copy of your résumé (or let them know you will be sending them a copy of your résumé soon, if it is not yet completed).
What To Do With Your References
Now that someone has agreed to be a reference for you, then what? Prepare a references page that you can give to a prospective employer (or email). It should match the format, font style, and font size of your résumé, with the same contact information.
Use this format for each reference:
|Current Employer:||ABC Company|
|Address*:||25 Whitehall Lane|
|City, State Zip:||New York, NY 10010|
|Phone Number**:||(310) 555-0932|
|How You Know the Person***:||– Former Supervisor at XYZ Company|
|How Long You’ve Known Them:||for three years (2007-2010).|
* Do include the address. Few companies will write to your references, but it can help the person checking the reference to know where they are calling (East Coast vs. West Coast, Europe).
** List the best phone number to reach your reference, and also provide times of day to reach them, if possible – i.e., daytime (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
*** Including how you know the person gives the person checking the reference some context as to who this person is to you, and what information they can supply.
In addition to your list of references and contact information, you can also provide another page that includes excerpts from or reprints of your LinkedIn Recommendations, but in hardcopy format. LinkedIn Recommendations and excerpts from letters of recommendation can also be included on your résumé (sometimes they are used in an “Endorsements” section).
When should you give your references to an employer? The easiest answer is: When you’re asked. Sometimes you’ll be asked on the initial application. Other times, you’ll be asked in the job interview itself. If you’re not asked, it’s fine to offer them at the job interview.
Never submit your references with the résumé and cover letter. Don’t put “References available upon request” on your résumé either. Prospective employers know you’ll provide your references when they ask for them! Use that space on your résumé for something more useful.
Preparing Your References When You Have a Job Interview
When you have been contacted for a job interview, contact your references and let them know. Forward a copy of the job posting, if you have one for the position. If it has been a while since they agreed to be your reference, ask if it’s still okay to list them as a reference. Make sure they have time to respond if they are contacted. If they say “Yes,” let them know you will contact them after the interview to keep them in the loop.
References should be kept updated often so they are aware of what is going on with your search. If you provide their name as a reference for a particular job, contact them right away after the interview to let them know. Give them the company name, position title you’re seeking, and the name, title, email address, and phone number for the person who may be calling. Let them know some of the critical challenges and responsibilities of the position so they will be prepared to discuss specific skills, experience, and achievements from their work with you. Ask them to let you know if they are contacted about a particular opportunity. (When they do let you know, ask what kind of questions they were asked.) This not only allows you to find out what information was collected in the reference check, but also can prompt you to write them a handwritten thank-you note, thanking them for their support.
If your job search continues for a long period of time, it’s likely that your references will have been contacted a number of times by prospective employers. It’s important to continue to check in with your references periodically to receive their continued permission for being contacted as a reference.
What Are References Typically Asked?
According to the 2010 SHRM survey, information verified in personal reference checks most often includes:
• Former employers (job titles, dates of employment, salary information)
• Degrees, school attendance, and academic accomplishments
• Responsibilities in previous positions held
Companies are also likely to verify licenses and certifications, check for professional disciplinary action (or malpractice suits), authenticate military discharge information, and double-check public speaking engagements or articles published.
Prospective employers are generally trying to evaluate your qualifications for the position, but also the “intangibles” that would make you a successful hire — and a good cultural fit — for the company. To that end, the reference checker (which may be the hiring manager) may ask about your communication, planning, decision-making, interpersonal, and leadership capabilities, as well as your technical skills and personal attributes/qualities.
The two items most likely to derail a job offer are discrepancies in dates of previous employment and degrees conferred. These are also two of the easiest items to check, as they can be verified with an institution directly, instead of with a specific individual (i.e., a direct supervisor, in the case of verifying job responsibilities).
Legal Implications of References — and Dispelling Common Myths
Companies should secure your permission before contacting your references — but keep in mind that simply providing contact information for references may be construed as permission to contact, in many cases. Some companies will require you to sign a release form. Read it carefully, as it may authorize the company to contact unnamed references as well (people not on your “preferred” reference list). The release form may also authorize the company to conduct a background check (to see if you have any criminal or civil legal issues, such as misdemeanor or felony convictions) and/or credit check (to examine your financial background).
One myth about reference checking is that your former employer can only provide your dates of employment, position titles, and salary history. This is not true. Legally, an employer can provide as much information as they want about your tenure with their company. While some companies establish this as a policy for their employees, it is not a universal regulation. Sometimes, even if it’s company policy, individual managers may simply ignore that.
However, the information provided in reference checks must be factual. This doesn’t mean that the person providing the reference can’t give their opinion of the employee — even if that opinion is negative.
Remember too, that one of the purposes of references is to help a prospective employer have the confidence to hire you. If you know your company’s policy is the “name, rank, and serial number” approach — and they won’t allow more information to be disclosed, you need to make sure you provide references outside of current employees who can provide that additional dimension.
Also, be aware that companies can refuse to provide a reference (and they don’t have to give a reason why). If your former company’s policy is not to give references, it’s important to know this, and share this information with your prospective employer, so they won’t think that the company just won’t give a reference for you. In these situations, include a former manager or supervisor on your “preferred” reference list, so they can get information about your time with that company (particularly if the employment was recent, or you were with the company for a long time).
What To Do About Negative References
Sometimes, you may suspect that a reference (usually not someone listed on your “preferred” reference list) is keeping you from getting offers, you can hire a company to contact your references and inquire about you. The most well-known of these firms is Allison & Taylor (www.allisontaylor.com). You will pay $79-$99 per reference, and will receive a written report.
The company says that approximately 50 percent of all reference checks they conduct uncover negative input from the reference. Once you know what is being said, you can take action, including talking to the reference or even working with an employment attorney to write a cease-and-desist order. It sounds drastic, but negative references can keep you from getting a job offer.
References: Next Steps
After you land your new job (and send your references a thank you letter for their role!), remember that maintaining your network should be an ongoing process. Keep in touch with your references occasionally, sharing good news, information, and resources. Don’t wait to communicate with them until you need them for your next job search.
Continue to build the list of Recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. In the future, more of the preliminary work of employment screening will be done by checking information available about you online (especially using Google), and this includes your LinkedIn profile. By keeping it up to date now, and building a bank of Recommendations now, you’ll improve your chances of landing the job offer in the future.