FAQs on Reference Checking

I got a question today from someone wanting to know how to handle references, so I’ve put together a little FAQ about it.

Are references really that important?
Your references can be a great ally in getting the job you really want. A good reference gives you credibility, reinforces your talents and experience, and will assure a future employer that you are what you say you are, and that you’re as great as they hope you will be.

Do companies really check references?
Most do, though not always. Some have formal reference-checking procedures that are very detail oriented, including verifying your college education. Some just call and have conversations with your references, looking for any red flags. And some companies hire the person they want and skip reference-checking altogether.

Can a reference be too long ago to be useful?
There is no expiration date for references, and they really are worth nurturing so they’re there when you need them. You do need to give current references, and it will look bizarre if you only list references from 1995, but if you have a stellar reference from years ago that speaks to who you are, then go ahead an include it, particularly if it’s from a high-ranking executive or respected public figure.

How many references should I give?
Sometimes the company will tell you specifically what they want, but if not, offer them four or five names.

Should references be included on my resume?
No, no, no. References should be presented when requested, and are usually one of the final stages in the hiring process. Not to mention that the names and contact information of your references are personal information, and should be kept confidential, because your resume might be circulated or shared with different people.

On your resume, you don’t even need to say “references on request” since we all know that if we ask, you will give them to us.

How should references be presented?
Put together a master list of references when you begin your job search. Make it the same format and font as your resume, but as a separate document. List the name, title, telephone and email of each person. Include a line about your working relationship (for example: John was my team lead on the Widget2 product launch), so your future employer will have a context for the conversation.

This is a master list, so will include more people than you’ll actually provide when the time comes. Then, when you are asked for references, all you have to do is choose the ones that are pertinent, delete the ones that aren’t, and you’re ready to go.

Who should I use as a reference?
As a rule of thumb, choose the highest-ranking/best titled people you can who know your work abilities. Use people who like you, who are articulate and engaging on the phone, and who have worked directly with you, so they can speak to your abilities and accomplishments.

The best references are your enthusiastic supporters, the ones who say “I’d hire her again in a minute” or “One of the best people on my team ever.” If you are a manager, make sure to include at least one reference of someone who reported to you, and if you are a salesperson or consultant, include at least one client in your references.

What about personal references?
If you want, you can go ahead an include one or two personal references in addition to business references. This should be someone you’ve known for at least several years, and all the better if they are a recognizable name or have a respected position like a professor, senior executive or government official.

Do I need to keep in touch with my references?
It’s best if you can, but people don’t expect you to be in constant contact if you’re no longer working together. Keeping in regular touch is invaluable for networking, though, so it’s worth the time. Nowadays, there are many online ways to stay connected with people.

LinkedIn is fantastic, since it not only allows you to connect with former and current coworkers and colleagues, but it also lets them put recommendations for your work right on your profile. Otherwise, just an occasional email or phone call to touch base is fine.

Should I ask their permission first?
Absolutely. Giving a reference is a big favor, so treat your references with respect. Call and touch base with the people you want to list and ask them if they would be willing to act as a reference for you. Confirm that you have the right contact information for them.

This will also give your references a heads up that you are in a job search, and that gives you a great chance for networking. Maybe they’ll know of jobs for you. Most references will be flattered and willing.

What about when I know the reference won’t be great?
Ah, the skeletons in the closet that only seem to come alive when we need a reference. It’s not uncommon at all. If your boss is not going to be your best reference, then don’t include him. This goes double if you left under less-than-wonderful circumstances. Find someone else in the company who can talk knowledgeably about your work, ideally someone who’s no longer there.

I think someone might not give me a good reference. How do I find out?
If you absolutely positively need to know what someone is going to say, the only way to find out is to have someone check your reference for you. Don’t ever try to do this yourself by pretending to be someone else. But you can have a very professional friend, someone who is used to checking references and knows what kinds of questions to ask, call your references to see what they say.

What if my company has a “no references” policy?
A lot of companies have rules that prohibit employees from giving any reference beyond verifying your dates of employment and job title. This is to avoid any liability if something they say keeps you from getting the job. If that’s the case, find someone who no longer works there, so they aren’t restricted in talking about you. Don’t worry that it looks odd they’re no longer there; it is very common for a reference to no longer be working at the company where you worked together.

Should I try to get a written letter of reference?
Yes, if you can. Particularly when being laid off, or when you aren’t confident you’ll get a good reference (like when your boss is temperamental, or your company might be going under), ask if your boss would be willing to write a letter for you. It must be very enthusiastic to be effective, because faint praise really shows when it’s written in a letter. But a good written reference can be offered earlier in the interview process, and can give you an edge with increased credibility. A written letter, though, doesn’t really substitute for a conversation about you.

Do I need to tell them someone is going to check my references?
You bet! When a company asks for your references, call the people whose names you give and let them know that you’ve given their contact info to so-and-so from such-and-such company, so they know to expect the call. This is also your chance to tell them about the job you’ve applied for, and the key things in your background and skills that the job requires. This way, they’ll be able to focus on the right things when they talk about you.

With the right preparation, good references can clinch the offer for you.

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