Reference Checks


One of the mistakes many job seekers make when selecting someone to be a reference is making their selection on the basis of the individual’s job title, not how familiar he or she is with the candidate’s actual job performance.

While it may seem like a good idea to ask the president of the company to serve as a reference for you, if he or she is too far removed from your daily job responsibilities, the job title really won’t matter in terms of providing useful answers to job-specific questions.  Here’s an example of what usually happens: The candidate asks the company president if he or she would mind serving as a reference.  The president, who, for the sake of this example, knows the candidate, agrees to serve as a reference, not realizing that the prospective employer is going to ask questions beyond the scope of the president’s actual awareness of the job responsibilities of the candidate.  So, the prospective employer calls, and the company president confirms that the candidate is a “swell” person, without realizing more job-specific questions than, “Was so-and-so a good worker?” will probably be asked.

If the prospective employer knows how to check references carefully, one of the questions will undoubtedly be, “Can you tell me what so-and-so’s responsibilities were on a daily basis?”  That ordinarily puts the president in the awkward spot of saying something like, “Well, I didn’t observe so-and-so’s work on a regular basis, but I’ve never heard anything bad about his/her overall job performance.”  That’s not much of an answer.  And it’s more likely than not that the company president isn’t going to know much about any of the other questions usually included in a thorough reference check – questions like career development needs, strengths and weaknesses, and ability to work effectively with others, etc., etc.

So, while it may look impressive to have the company president as a reference, if he or she really doesn’t know much about the candidate’s actual job performance, the responses, if any are offered at all, won’t be of much use to the prospective employer in terms of evaluating past job performance.  It would be far better to ask a coworker or an immediate supervisor to serve as a reference than the company president, who really doesn’t have any first-hand knowledge about the candidate’s job performance.

The same, incidentally, is true of anyone else who is unlikely to be familiar with the candidate’s actual job performance.  That list would include, just to mention a few, ministers, golfing buddies, the bank president down the street, or the family doctor.  It’s not the title the prospective references hold that matters when selecting references, but the nature of the relationship between the candidate and the reference.  References should always be people with whom the candidate has actually worked on a day-to-day basis within the last five to seven years.