Reference Checks


Frequently, job seekers will provide a prospective employer with a list of “personal” references.  Prospective employers will often compound the problem of using these personal references by making simplistic inquiries, like, “Is Mary a nice person?” (or some other innocuous inquiry similar to that).  By definition, a personal reference is someone who has never worked with the job seeker.  Personal references can be anyone from a favorite teacher, next-door neighbor, minister, golfing buddy, scoutmaster, to a shirttail relative.  While these types of people would all make great references if the person listing them needs a character reference to apply for membership to the local Elks Club, for employment purposes, they’re totally inappropriate on a job application.

Why?  Because checking references for employment, by definition, requires references to be people familiar with the applicant’s overall job performance over time.  Employment references are people with whom the candidate has actually worked on a day-to-day basis within the last five to seven years.  From the prospective employer’s standpoint, it’s important to know, among other things, exactly what the candidate’s responsibilities were on the job.  It’s important to know how a coworker or supervisor would assess the candidate’s strengths and career development needs.  What are the chances that the candidate’s favorite teacher, for example, would have even the remotest clue about any questions like that?
The minister may be able to say that the candidate was a generous contributor to the church’s building fund, but there’s no way he or she will have any idea what the candidate’s main strength was on the job.
Unless the prospective employer is only interested in finding out if the candidate is a nice person or a good student or won ten merit badges, a personal reference is – to be blunt – a waste of time.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, personal references simply won’t know anything about the details of the candidate’s job performance.  How could they?  Well, the answer is – they couldn’t.  That’s why it’s so important for employers to insist that candidates for employment provide the names of work-related references.  While it might be nice to know that the candidate is kind to children and small animals, kindness suggests nothing about a candidate’s career development needs, management style, or ability to supervise others.
Employers, therefore, need to make sure what sort of references are being provided on a job application or resume.  If they’re personal references, as defined in this article, it’s the prospective employer’s responsibility to insist that the candidate provide work-related references.  If the candidate cannot do that, a red flag of major proportions should obviously go up immediately.