The Wise Job Search aims to provide the "Best of the Best" information, resources, and ideas to help you go from "I didn't get the job" to "I start on Monday!"
Have a job search question? Send an email through the Contact page and check back for an article with an answer!

Do References Really Matter?

image No one actually checks references anymore, do they?

Even if they did, my company can’t say anything negative about me because of the potential liability, right?

Besides, who would list someone as a reference if it wasn’t a positive one anyway?

These are some of the questions I hear from candidates from time to time. The truth is that references DO matter! Do you know what yours will say? Do you know how they will say it? You should. It may mean the difference between getting an offer or not!

This topic just became very evident to me as I placed a candidate at one of my client companies this week.  After a long search process, several initial candidates, and many interviews, the company narrowed their choice down to 2 candidates. They invited both of these final candidates in for a 3rd interview with multiple managers and potential peers. One candidate, “John”, was their favorite. “Susan” was also thought of highly, but the consensus was not leaning her way.

As usual in the process, I called references for each candidate and presented the results to my client. Everything changed.

Both candidates had good references. I connected with four references, two for each candidate. None of them had anything negative to say at all. However, the difference between them were enormous.

John’s references answered each question, spoke well of him, and each said that they would definitely re-hire him if they had an opportunity available.

Susan’s references gushed! They answered each question, and added superlatives about her to each one. They were enthusiastic. They volunteered strong examples of how she excelled in various situations, and they each wished they had an opportunity to be able to hire her now.

In listening to them on the phone, and transcribing what they said, the differences between the two were obvious. The decision by the client became a “no-brainer”… Susan got the job!

Often, a good reference is not good enough. Your references need to be fans. Are yours? Do you know what they will say and how they will say it?

Many times people think that companies don’t give meaningful reference information anymore due to liability issues. Certainly a company’s Legal department, or the HR department may wish that to be the case, and often train their Managers in the importance in not providing reference information. All a company is obligated to provide is the person’s title and dates of employment.

The reality is, people want to give references! In 23 years of checking references, there has only been a small handful of times that I have not been able to get one. 

At times they may say something to the effect of: “Our company policy prohibits me from providing reference information.”

My response: “I can appreciate that, however, generally you can at least confirm their title and dates of employment, is that right?” 

Them: “Sure, I can do that.”

We exchange that information…

Me: “So how did they work out for you?”

They: “They were terrific!” OR “They were OK.”

Me: “Really? How do you mean?”

…and the conversation rarely lasts less than another 10 minutes.

And yes… sometimes they are bad references.

So what should you do?

  • Pick your references carefully.
  • Make SURE you have their permission to use them.
  • Ask them what they would say about you! Then listen carefully.
    • Are they enthusiastic about you?
    • Do they have examples of your accomplishments?
    • Would they love the opportunity to rehire you?
    • If not… think about picking someone else!
  • Let them know that especially in this market, the tone of references often makes the difference in getting a position or not.
  • Let them know how much you appreciate their help in getting a position you want.

References DO matter! Doing a little preparation in advance can make the difference between getting an offer, or coming in 2nd!


Thank you for visiting The Wise Job Search. I truly appreciate your interest. If you like the material here and would like to help keep it viable, please peruse and visit book recommendations, and other resources posted throughout the site. Best wishes on your continued search, and feedback is always welcome!


Anonymous said...

funny that you mention it- I had a candidate providing a reference of an old boss that ended up getting security to escort him out the building on his last day. Guess he didn't think we check references....

Unknown said...

So when the job posting askes if they can call your last employer and you don't want them to should you just say no? And if you do say no doesn't that raise a red flag as well?

Harry said...

If you're still employed in the position, they should certainly understand why you wouldn't want them to call.

Otherwise, it may be somewhat of a red flag. However, most people would understand that you prefer some references over others.

You can't control informal references though. If they know someone that may know you, it's natural that they may call and ask about you.

Debra Feldman, the JobWhiz said...

Harry and others -

It's a fact that social networks are growing rapidly. Like it or not, your references may be checked before you even get a chance to set foot in the door! If someone wants a reference, they don't have to ask permission, they can simply check a person's online footprint. All the more reason to watch what is written about you and make sure it is all really good. If it is questionable, then be proactive addressing this with the writer and also, reversing this damaging effect with more positive data. You cannot control your references but you can influence the results by focusing on obtaining positive recommendations, great endorsements and monitoring your digital presence like a hawk!

Additional "Wise Job Search" Help by Topic: