Reference Checks


A common question among job seekers is “How far back can I go to ask people I’ve worked with before to be references for me?”  As a general rule the answer is “not more than five to seven years.”

Current references are always the best – people you’re currently working with on a day-to-day basis, but it’s clear that it isn’t always possible to identify current coworkers or superiors who are willing to take on the responsibility of serving as a reference, particularly if there’s a company policy against saying anything about current or former employees!

So, you might be put in the position of having to ask friends you’ve worked with at a previous place of employment to be references for you.  The question then becomes how far back should one go when selecting people to be references for you?  The reason the standard response is “five to seven” years is that, after about seven years, it’s going to become increasingly difficult for most people to remember with any degree of specificity the particulars about your job performance, which is the essence of real reference checking.

Here’s a perfect example of why going back too far can turn out badly.  Some time ago I was talking with a reference who hadn’t worked with the candidate for ten years.  Here’s a paraphrase of what he said when I asked him what the candidate’s specific responsibilities on the job were.  “Wow, I haven’t seen [Tom] since he left here almost ten years ago.  All I really remember is that he did a pretty good job; but, as to specifics, I’m sorry, but I just don’t remember.”  The candidate had called this individual and properly asked him to serve as a reference; and, because they were still friends, the individual agreed – not expecting to be asked much more than what he thought of [Tom].  A carefully crafted set of interview questions, however, attempts to illicit more detailed information about a candidate for employment than he was merely a “good guy.”

In terms of evaluating the candidate’s suitability for the position to be filled, learning that he was a “good guy” is hardly enough information upon which to base a solid hiring decision.  It’s not that the reference from ten years ago wasn’t trying to be helpful; it’s just that expecting anyone to remember the specifics about a candidate’s job performance is, frankly, expecting too much.

So, when developing a list of references, remember that it’s important to select people with whom you’ve worked recently enough for them to be familiar with your overall job performance.  Current references are obviously the best, but asking someone you worked with more than five to seven years ago is going to be a real test of memory for that individual and very well could slow down a potentially favorable hiring decision!