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 say something that hurts the job seeker, a job seeker can (and job seekers have) come back and sued past employers.

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 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.