If you’re job hunting, you’re likely to be asked for professional references. But when do employers call these references?
As a former recruiter, I’m going to share with you:
Employers check references when a job candidate is near the end of the interview process and when the company is interested in offering a position, but before making an offer.
It takes time and resources to check references, so most hiring managers will wait to call your references until they’re interested in hiring you.
Sometimes, an employer will want to check references for a job candidate sooner, though.
If the company has a reason for concern, for example, if you are struggling to explain why you left your last job, they may ask for references before the job interview process kicks off.
In this case, they’d most likely ask for a reference who is your former manager.
Most employers will ask for three references in total, and two should be professional references who can speak about your work history and job-related skills, and vouch for your ability to perform well in this next job.
While a prospective employer will usually wait until the end of the interview process to begin checking references, a recruiter may want to speak to references from a previous employer sooner.
First, recruiters want to ensure that the job seekers they’re talking to are competent and reliable.
A recruiter is vouching for you when they send your info to a hiring manager and recommending that a company interview you.
Hiring managers trust recruiters (assuming they’ve got a good working relationship and history together), so a recruiter wants to know who they’re sending over for a job interview, to maintain a positive reputation and relationship with this manager.
In this case, checking references helps them know who they’re sending over to the employer.
There’s another reason recruiters may ask for references ahead of time in your job search, too… and you need to be careful of this…
Some recruiters will use reference checks to find new job candidates to work with.
Sure, checking references is a necessary part of the recruitment process, but some recruiters try to take advantage of this to find prospective employees to represent in their job searches.
They’ll go through some basic reference check questions with each person, but then they’ll also ask whether this person has considered a job search, or whether they’re open to new opportunities.
They may mention that the job market is strong right now, etc.
So protect your references from receiving too many calls, and try to push back if recruiters and employers want to speak to references before you’ve had an interview.
You can say:
I typically provide references after we’re reasonably sure the position is a good fit, and when we’re nearing the job offer process. This protects my references from receiving too many calls and getting burned out during my job search. I have a list of references that I’m happy to provide if we decide this is a good potential fit, but I’d like to explore the position more first.
I don’t recommend providing references on job applications for the reasons mentioned above. It’s simply too soon to allow each employer to call your references.
Don’t be afraid to push back here. Any in-demand job candidate with great references isn’t going to let employers call them after a simple job application. So you’re positioning yourself as a strong candidate by pushing back here!
Simply assure employers that you have references ready, but then say that you want to explore the job opportunity (by having an interview) to see if it’s a good potential match first.
Employers may check references for multiple candidates. The hiring manager may conduct a reference check for more than one candidate if they’re unsure who to hire and need a tie-breaker, or if they’re unsure whether one candidate will accept a job offer and therefore want to be ready to make an offer to their second-choice candidate.
It’s a good sign if a hiring manager wants to check your job references, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the only candidate left in the hiring process.
So never let your guard down and never stop trying to make your best impression on an employer, even after they ask for references.
When a prospective employer calls your previous company, your previous company will likely only disclose limited info such as:
Past employers are typically careful not to share this info out of fear of lawsuits.
However, while the info that previous employers disclose is quite limited, an individual who you provide as a reference can share much more information.
So let’s talk about what your employer will ask your individual references next…
When a recruiter, hiring manager, or HR person calls your references, they’re likely to ask a number of questions, including:
Then, if the reference tells the prospective employer that you were work colleagues, they’ll often ask much more about your work, including:
As you can see, there’s quite a lot of info that an employer may ask during their reference-checking process.
For this reason, it’s best to tell employers that you prefer to provide references toward the end of the hiring process, and certainly after you’ve had at least one interview to learn about the position.
Otherwise, your references are going to be bombarded with calls and quickly grow tired of answering these questions.
Even good references who are enthusiastic about helping you land the job will grow tired if they have to take 10 phone calls.
As a general rule, try to get through the entire interview process, at least past the point of having a face-to-face interview, before providing your references for a job.
If you are currently employed while job hunting, be certain to tell each company that they do not have your permission to contact your current employer on your resume.
I once interviewed for a job while employed and this company made the mistake of calling my current employer to verify my job title and employment status of my current position.
It ended up working out for me since this new company offered me the job.
But my boss at this last company did not appreciate finding out that I was job searching like this! It created an uncomfortable situation in the office.
The bottom line is:
Sometimes reference checkers work in the human resources department and aren’t even that experienced or careful, so always tell a company clearly if you don’t wish them to call a certain employer.
Having fantastic references can help you get the job and can be the final piece in convincing an employer that you’d be a great employee, but only if you choose and prepare them adequately.
And on the flip side, choosing the wrong references or not preparing them enough can cost you the job.
Always put time and thought into creating your reference list.
Choose your references carefully, and talk to each reference beforehand to ask if they’re comfortable speaking positively about your past work.
Also tell each reference the job title of the role, the name of the potential employer who may be calling, and other basic background info that will help them speak highly of you.
If you’re a final candidate in the process, mention this. Doing so should give them extra motivation to speak enthusiastically about your value as a prospective employee, and therefore help you get the job.
Along with reference checks, some employers will run a background check on each job applicant before issuing a job offer.
Since it costs money each time employers conduct background checks, it’s almost certain that the hiring manager or HR team will review background check info if they’ve asked you to submit to a background check.
So yes, if an employer runs a background check, they are going to check that information.
Employers call references when a candidate is near the end of the hiring process and after they’ve finished most interview steps, but before the company issues a job offer.
However, if a hiring manager or recruiter has concerns about your work history, they may ask to speak to a professional reference before you begin interviewing.
If you’ve read the info above, you know when to give references, when you can expect your references to be called, and how to prepare strong references who will impress potential employers.
A good reference or two can be the deciding factor in the interview process, so review the info above and be sure you’re providing references at the right time, and in the right way, to land the job.
Biron Clark is a former executive recruiter who has worked individually with hundreds of job seekers, reviewed thousands of resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and recruited for top venture-backed startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been advising job seekers since 2012 to think differently in their job search and land high-paying, competitive positions.
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