Sam was in career-transition. He applied for a job to few companies. Not much
success. One evening, he was sitting with Julia over a cup of coffee.
Julia knew about his efforts and outcomes. Sam asked whether he can give Julia’s
name for reference checks. Julia agreed.
Sam and Julia then discussed how Reference checks work. Julia was in favour of it;
Sam was sceptic about it.
Look at the gist of their talk:
1. Policies about not providing references are seldom maintained. While some
employers have a policy that they won’t give a reference beyond simply confirming
your dates of employment, in reality this policy is broken all the time. It’s usually HR
types who adhere to the letter of these policies, while individual managers are often
willing to give more detailed references, regardless of what the rule is.
2. Employers can call people outside of your reference list. While people often
believe employers limit themselves to the formal list of references you provide, the
reality is that they may call anyone you’ve worked for or who might know you. In fact,
a lot of reference-checking happens behind the scenes when an employer spots a
mutual connection and calls that person to ask their opinion of you. The only person
who’s typically considered off-limits is your current employer.
3. Employers can ask references anything they want. Contrary to the myth that
employers can only ask very targeted and limited questions, they can ask anything at
all (as long as it’s not about protected classes, like race, religion, disabilities, and so
They can and do ask about your work ethic, your attitude, how your work compared
with your peers’ work, what you accomplished, what your weakest points are, why
you left, and whether the employer would be excited to hire you again, among other
4. Tone is often more important than words. A good reference-checker pays
close attention to tone. If the reference sounds hesitant, uncomfortable, or anxious to
get off the phone, those are red flags.
5. A lukewarm reference can be damning. Reference-checking isn’t about simply
ticking off a series of boxes confirming that you weren’t fired for insubordination or
theft. Instead, a good reference-checker is looking to see how your past managers
talk about your work, and whether they’re enthusiastic about you or not. There’s a
telling difference between “Sure, she did a fine job,” and “She’s just the best—I wish
we could hire her, but since we can’t, you must.”
6. What your past bosses say matters a lot more than what your peers say.
Offering up only peers as references is a red flag that will make an employer wonder
why you don’t want your past managers contacted. And bosses are the ones we
really care about talking to, because they’re the ones who can speak to what you’re
like as an employee in a way that peers often can’t.
7. Letters of reference are rarely worth your time. No one puts critical information
in reference letters, so employers know they don’t count for much. Besides, when
hiring managers get to the point when we want to talk to your references, we want to
truly talk to them—on the phone, where we can ask questions and probe around. We
want to hear the tone of your reference’s voice, hear where they hesitate before
answering, and hear what happens when we dig around about potential problem
8. You might be able to neutralize a bad reference. If your former boss isn’t
speaking highly of you, call and ask if she’d be willing to reach an agreement with
you on what she’ll say to future reference calls. Say something like this: “I’m
concerned that the reference you’re providing for me is preventing me from getting
work. Could we work something out so that this isn’t standing in my way?” Many
employers will be willing to work something out with you.
And if you think the reference your boss is providing is factually inaccurate, skip her
and go straight to your old company’s HR department. HR people are trained in this
area, will be familiar with the potential for legal problems, and will probably speak to
your old boss and put a stop to it.
What kind of reference Sam should provide?
Suresh Shah, Managing Director, Pathfinders Enterprise