Reference checking tips for job hunters and employers

Job references. You find yourself busy with the job hunting process and all of a sudden, someone is asking for your references. Do you know who to give them? Do you know what they will say?

There are some job references you cannot bypass, for example listed previous employers. Recently a question was posed, “I was told by some of my Human Resources friends that a prospective employer could ask questions about why I left my previous employer and what salary I was making. I thought all they could ask legally was my dates of employment.”

The fact is there are no hard and fast rules. It comes down to how much risk a previous employer is willing to take to provide information on their ex-employees. Some employers follow the hard and fast rule of less is better; others may be too lax.

Employer has the right to establish how they want to handle reference checks. You have the right to offer additional references that might fill in the gaps.

Employer References

Opting to confirm basic information only is the least risky approach. Simply put, the employer will either provide the basic information when asked or will confirm what is told to them.

When employers only confirm what is told them, it is a safeguard to ensure that the person calling has information to validate. Typically, the only information low risk employers will validate is:

  • Dates of employment – start and stop dates
  • Job title

Sometimes, employers will provide or confirm additional information such as

  • Eligibility for rehire
  • Compensation

There are some situations where employers require the ex-employee to sign a release or waiver; this is to protect them from allegations of defamation.

While at a face value someone may think that calling an ex-employer who limits what information is a waste of time, it can prove to be insightful. When you verify information, you are ensuring that the candidate is being factual and accurate with their resume.

Unfortunately, there are people who believe they can cover up some of their lapses in work history or that they were one credit away from a degree, yet indicate they have one from a school. Situations like these are red flags for an employer; if the candidate can lie or forget to include something; chances are those behaviors will manifest themselves in their new work environment.

This reminds me of an example of someone who used to work for me when I owned Dessert HR Solutions, Inc. At the time, I had employees and we helped small businesses who were either not big enough to have an HR department or wanted to outsource it.

One employee left because he did something unethical. He disagreed. I believe he knew he did something wrong and let me tell you why.

To this day, he does not indicate he worked with us on his resume. If his conscience did not bother him, he would list it. One day it will catch up with him and any credibility he has built will be lost.

Think long and hard if exaggerating or leaving off details is in your best interest. I realize it can be hard to explain the reasons why you failed in the past. Employers would rather hear that you learned a lesson than end up with someone who continues to make the same mistakes.

Personal References

While the verification process is very helpful to a prospective employer, they would rather know about your job performance, skills, abilities and attitude. The best way to glean this information is through personal references; otherwise, reference checkers will hit roadblocks. Most human resources departments avoid opinionated discussions.

Your personal references are people who know you well, they may be:

  • Previous bosses
  • Previous co-workers
  • Association colleagues
  • Customers or clients
  • Volunteer organizations
  • Friends who work in a similar field

Select individuals who will be able to answer questions such as:

  • Can you provide some of (name’s) duties and responsibilities?
  • To what level of skill were they done?
  • Can you describe the level of independence (name) takes when completing projects?
  • Has (name) supervised people in the past?
  • What would employees say about (name)?
  • What would peers say about (name)?
  • What are (name’s) strengths and areas of opportunity?
  • Do you see (name) moving into a management position?
  • What kind of problem would you go to (name) and know that you were talking to the expert.
  • Is (name) more of a follower or leader? How do you define it?
  • On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate (name’s) skills and why.
    • Oral communication
    • Written communication
  • Is (name) reliable and on time?
  • How does (name) work in groups?

If your personal references cannot answer these questions, they are probably not a good choice. Always call and ask them if they are willing to serve as a reference before you give their name out to a recruiter or future employer.

It is acceptable to ask your references what their response would be to any questions posed to them. Feel free to use this list of questions as a starting point and add to them. In fact, if you have a great question, leave it in the comment section below so that other people can add to their list!

About Lynn Dessert (433 Posts)

Lynn Dessert is an ICF trained certified NLP Coach specializing in Executive Career coaching based in Charlotte NC. She works with individuals and organizations to maximize personal effectiveness skills—a cornerstone to career advancement. Lynn is the author of What To Do After Being Fired and The Secerts to Successful Job On-Boarding. Start your discovery process by contacting her at 704.512.2852 today.


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