Job References: Can You Trust Them?

Job References: Can You Trust Them?

Job References:  Can You Trust Them?

“Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see.” ― Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Most hiring companies do reference checks on potential employees.  How reliable are these references?  How risky are they to the job seeker and to the people who are acting as references?

Intelligent people are not going to give references who will say bad things about them.  They make of list of people who will say positive things.  Before giving the name of the reference to a prospective employer, intelligent people call the reference.  They reach an understanding that the reference is willing and supportive.

The Set Up

One of the worst placements I made had references from two former clients who gushed about the qualities of the person.  Once the person got the job, his performance was the exact opposite of what the job references said it would be.  The references, both of whom held solid positions with solid companies, were clearly in on a set up.

Smart hiring managers know that job references are a set up.  In a way, reference checks are a test of a person’s ability to find people who can say good things about them.

At best, these references are confirmations of employment dates.

The Risks

Reference checks are risky to the job seeker and to the people serving as references.

The people speaking as references put themselves at risk and their company at risk.  If they happen to give an opinion that hurts the job seeker, a job seeker can (and job seekers have) come back and sue past employers for a negative reference check.

The intelligent company policy is to prohibit reference checks.  These companies only give prospective employers the employment dates for past employees.

In a confidential job search, a job seeker puts their current employment at risk by allowing hiring companies to call people about the job seeker’s efforts to find new employment.  Nearly everyone says they can keep a secret.  But do they?  To quote Benjamin Franklin again, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

Nonetheless, companies continue to check job references, and job seekers continue to give references.

So Be Smart.

There are a few simple things to consider about job references.  None of these things takes all the risks out of reference checks but these are ideas that are worth considering.

  • Save the references checks until all the details of the offer have been ironed out.  This step reduces the risk to the job seeker of getting exposed without actually getting a job offer.
  • On the other hand, if the hiring company withdraws the offer after the completion of the reference check, job seekers might very well believe that their references have wronged them.
  • Focus on facts: dates of employment, copies of degrees, college transcripts, or letters of certification.
  • Consider a background check instead of reference checks.
  • If you choose an agency to do a background check, make certain that they are compliant with the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).  In other words, do a background check of the company doing the background check.

Job References

Job References
Job references can make or break your job offer.

During the interview process, most hiring companies do reference checks on potential employees.

Some companies ask for written references.  More likely, a company will conduct references over the phone.

When giving a person as a reference, get the person’s approval first.

In some cases, your current or former employer will not give information on your performance.  The employer may have a policy that limits giving employment information to the dates that you worked at their company.

Often the hiring company will speak with specific types of references.  For example, the company will ask to speak with current or former supervisors, co-workers, customers, vendors, or business connections.

In the case of reference checks for inexperienced workers, the hiring company may ask to speak with a neighbor, teacher, or classmate.

Here are common reference check questions.

  • How long have you know this person?
  • Would you hire or rehire the person today?
  • Why did this person leave the last job?
  • What was your relationship with the person?
  • What would you say about this person and how would you describe the person?
  • How well does the person handle conflict?
  • What are his/her strongest points?
  • How does this person work with other people?
  • How does this person respond to feedback and criticism?
  • What were the person’s greatest accomplishments?
  • How would you rate the person’s performance on a scale of 1-10?
  • What area of development could the candidate focus on?

Other helpful articles
How to Receive Job-Winning Reference Checks
Build a Powerhouse Reference List As Part of Building Your Professional Network.

Image: Natalie Maynor/Flickr

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