Reference Checks


The title of this piece suggests very plainly that the candidate seeking employment didn’t do a very good job of selecting his/her references.  One of the most fundamental rules in reference checking is for the job seeker to select people he/she has actually worked with on a daily basis within the last five to seven years.  On the other hand, if the prospective employer has any sense at all, the prospective candidate will be asked to provide the references of a very specific sort – a current or former superior, peer, and subordinate.  The reason for the foregoing assortment of references is to be able to view the candidate from three different perspectives – from above, laterally, and from below.  It almost goes without say that how a candidate relates to a superior may be entirely different from how he/she interacts with subordinates – an important distinction for a prospective employer.

So, having been given the assortment of references desired, the burden then shifts to the candidate to contact people with whom he/she has worked who fit those descriptions and to ask them specifically if they will serve as his/her references.  Implicit in this part of the exercise is the assumption that the candidate will have made friends with coworkers who fit the foregoing description and that they will talk to the prospective employer, or its agents, when called.  It would be ridiculous to list an individual as a reference who had previously made it clear that he or she wouldn’t talk to a prospective employer!  So, the prospective employer dictates the types of references desired.  It is up to the candidate to provide the names of references who fit those three categories and who will also be willing to talk.

Over the years, however, I’ve called many a reference that did, in fact, decline to talk about the candidate.  It’s almost impossible to conceive of a candidate saying to a reference, “I’ve got a great chance to work for Company X.  Since we’ve worked together for the last three years, would you be a reference for me?”  Only to have that person reply, “Sure, I’ll be a reference for you, but I’m not going to answer any questions about you.”  In situations where, for whatever reason, the reference refuses to comment, I’ve typically gone right back to the candidate and asked him/her to contact that reluctant reference and either ask him/her to take the call or to provide the name of an alternate reference who is willing to discuss the candidate’s past job performance.

The only conclusion one can reach in a situation like I’ve just described is that the candidate didn’t ask a former boss or coworker if he/she would serve as a reference in the first place!  The candidate was betting, in other words, that no one could actually call his/her references.

Reference checking is really a three-way sort of street:  1.) the employer asking for specific types of references,  2.) the prospective employee identifying and asking the appropriate people to be a reference and, 3.) The willingness of those people asked to respond to questions when called by the prospective employer.