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What do you look for in a good reference?
March 12, 2014 4:45 PM   Subscribe

HR and people in charge of hiring new employees: What do you look for when checking applicants' references?

I'm a recent college grad job hunting at the moment, and am curious what is the usual procedure in checking references. I thought employers usually checked references after an initial interview -- is that right? Or could they contact my references before the interview? When do employers usually contact the references?

More importantly, what sort of questions do you ask when scouring a candidate's past performance? And how can I prep my references for potential questions?

So far I've warned my references that someone might be calling them, but it might be weeks before any of my interviewers get to that point. Should I update them regularly about who and what organizations might ask them about me? I don't want to be annoying, but I am looking at many opportunities at a time and don't think my ex-employers want to know about all of them... So far I have no clue who was actually serious enough to use my references list.
posted by myntu to Work & Money (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
It is considered polite to inform you before your references will be contacted, at least for jobs that require an education, and where they assume you aren't lying at first.

But they might not always do that, in which case you are already covered, as you informed your references. This is new to you, and you are taking it seriously -- which is good. But the truth is this is standard practice. I just applied for 50 jobs in the past 6 months, and included a one page 'references' list with 5 past profs/managers. I told them all I would use them as references at the start, and only when I was offered a job did they check. At which point I gave them a final heads up!

Only update them if you think they would care. Otherwise the call will go something like this:
"Hello XYZ can you confirm myntu worked here?"

Or -- if it's not just confirming past work experience
"Hello XYZ I'm calling on behalf of ACME corp--is now a good time to talk?--, where we are considering hiring myntu. He has you listed as a reference on his resume. Can you take 10-20 seconds to share your thoughts on his strengths and weaknesses? -- great, thanks!"

Bad is "Oh, myntu gave you my number? Oh um yeah no he's a good kid"
Good is "myntu is a great kid. He works hard. He is still a little new to the office life, but that's to be expected for someone his age, I think he would be great at ACME corp."


Overall don't badger your references too much. You've done what you have to do. Only message them again if you have a good reason (e.g. accepted a job and they want to do a formal check of references, then let them know to explicitly expect a call).
posted by jjmoney at 5:05 PM on March 12


I'm a hiring manager and reference checks are kind of an iffy thing for me. I do them, but I don't expect to get a lot out of them - why would someone use a person as a reference if they weren't certain they'd give good feedback? Also, you increasingly see corporate policies where folks will only verify dates of employment or vague details, so a lot can depend on stuff like whether the reference is still working at the same company where the two worked together, or if they have moved on and therefore might have more leeway to talk.

Red flags for me, or at least things that aren't helpful: references are co-workers/friends but not managers. References don't respond promptly to my queries (I start with email, introduce myself, and propose a quick phone call in the next 24 hours at any time the person can accommodate. If I don't hear back, I call directly). References can't give specific examples of projects or experience. I sometimes ask things like "Can you give me an example of a time X was really stuck on something technical, and how they got themselves unstuck." Personal/work email can be mixed as a contact point if the reference is a current coworker...but I do find it sketchy when the email address doesn't cleanly tie to the person's name. For one person I just checked, who gave a coworker/corporate email as a reference, I never heard back after multiple attempts. He claimed to be having some problems with his corporate mail and my message hadn't reached him, which seemed really off.

Things that make me feel better about the hire: references are management. References are from a cross-section of the person's resume, and/or are not all still at old company. References, as managers, are enthusiastic and would love to hire the person again (just had this happen, sadly for me the guy hadn't known she was looking and then went and grabbed her out from under us!!!). There's a big difference between "I'm enthusiastic about this person" and "I'm willing to serve as a reference." I always specifically ask, would you work with or hire this person again? Absolute best, for me, is an internal referral from someone who works for me now that I trust, who worked with the candidate in the past. Those are hard to find, though. My husband is a hiring manager and he sometimes will dig on LinkedIn and has pinged connections in common - got some good feedback that way that he never would have gotten via candidate-provided references. But that takes time and you don't always have enough people in common do to it.

I personally would prefer that candidates alert references that I might be calling. You can totally have a standing agreement with someone to use them, but then also give them a heads up (someone might be calling, this is the company, this is the job, here are some things that seemed important in the interview process). I do NOT call until we are in the final stages of prepping for an offer - no time. If I call and the person is confused, doesn't remember, clearly hasn't been in touch with the candidate recently that would look bad.
posted by handful of rain at 5:10 PM on March 12 [5 favorites]


Many companies no longer provide a character reference, so when I actually get somebody on the phone who will talk in detail, I ask as many questions as I can. But first, I always cover the following:
-When did (X) work at (Company Y)?
-Is (X) eligible for rehire?
-Did you supervise (X)?

If that last question is a yes, I go to my next round of questions:
-How would you describe (X)'s job responsibilities? What is (X) like on the job?
-How would you rate (X)'s reliability?
-How would you rate (X)'s performance?
-....rate (X)'a job knowledge?
-....describe (X)'a strengths?
-...describe (X)'s weaknesses?

From here, I may ask more specific questions depending on some of the comments made by the reference. I'm generally trying to find out anything I need to know before I submit the person for a position.

There are a lot of factors as well that determine how many questions I ask or how in depth I'll go. If the person is less experienced (I.e. entry level) I try to just get a sense of the person. Generally a three month internship here and there doesn't produce much in terms of hard results. These are learning opportunities and I mainly just like to know that the person did complete the assignment / internship in a satisfactory manner.

Also, if the reference is supremely positive I feel sometimes I'm not getting all the information that I need. That may mean I'll either ask more questions of the candidate or I'll look to see if the other references (since usually we get 2-3 per candidie) will share better feedback.

I will say I think references are far more important for assessing the strengths of a candidate than anything else. It's my job to find out or discover weaknesses or issues during my time with the candidate.

To sum this up, you should always just make sure your references have agreed to speak on your behalf, and ask people you trust. If you have more specific questions here, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by glaucon at 5:16 PM on March 12


I just went through this and one of my references called me and told me about the employer's call. The main question they ask is if the reference would hire you again if given the opportunity.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 5:20 PM on March 12


Also keep them updated on your search if it looks like something is likely. If that's only 1 opportunity, so be it. If it's 3-4, they should know.
posted by glaucon at 5:24 PM on March 12


In my experience, references are called after interviews are all done before the company makes a job offer.

You need a reference who agreed to be a good reference. Specifically email them and ask if they would be willing to be a positive reference? If they ignore you or say no, do not use that person. But if they say yes, they will probably be complimentary. It's good to do this because you verify they will recommend you, the personal contact may help them want to be nice by helping you out, and it gives them a heads up that they will be contacted so they are prepared.

As far as updating references, when you get far into the hiring process and it's a job you want, I'd let them know. Just a friendly note to say you interviewed at such and such place and hope it works out, so the reference could be hearing from them, hopefully. Thank them, of course, and let them know you'll update them when you land somewhere. Don't update them after a preliminary interview or worse, after you apply. Reference checks happen at the end of the process -- a company won't waste their time doing time-consuming reference checks on people they never intend to hire.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:54 PM on March 12


Thanks for the answers so far! Related question that just popped up in my mind: Why do some employers ask for references in the very beginning (ie. along with the cover letter and resume) if most intend to use them towards the end of the process? Is it to weed out people who don't have 2-3 (or more) reliable references, to ensure that a candidate's files are all together for easy browsing, or for some other reason?
posted by myntu at 6:42 PM on March 12


There's no mandated process so the reason why Company X would collect them early versus Company Y collecting them near the end is just their standard practice.

In other words, there's no rhyme or reason. Could rarely be due to a company feeling like the references are less important in their interview process, but that may not (i.e. isn't likely to) be the case.
posted by glaucon at 6:51 PM on March 12


You don't say where you are based, or what industry you're in, which makes a difference. If you are in the UK and in health or social care your prospective employer has to satisfy themselves as to why you left previous jobs in the field, by law. Dates of employment are not sufficient - previous employers need to know what job you left and why you left it to ensure you are a good person to be working with vulnerable adults.

For your follow-up, if you contacted me very shortly after being offered the job and told me your reference had fallen through I wouldn't look askance, however you would still have to meet the non-dodgy criteria as above as well as being good at your job, for me to give you a positive reference.
posted by goo at 7:20 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Myntu, two things, one on your original question and one on your follow-up. First of all, you mentioned that you are a recent college grad. References aren't going to be as important in your situation because you don't have a work history yet. If I was a potential employer, it might be interesting to talk to that college professor you did a project with, but as another poster mentioned, references are generally going to say nice things about you and, without a work history, I can't ask them specific questions about your work style. It certainly doesn't hurt to have them all lined up, but don't be surprised if most potential employers don't bother to check.

Second, regarding the whys and wherefores of checking references. Here is the thing: let's say you are a company with a couple of hundred employees and a turnover rate of 15% a year and your policy is to always advertise to back-fill those positions. And let's say you get a hundred resumes every time you do that. A hundred isn't a crazy number, might be a lot less, but can also be more. So in a given year, HR might handle thousands or tens of thousands of candidates.

The job of HR, and the hiring manager, is to somehow cull that stack of a hundred resumes per position down to maybe three people who they want to bring in an interview in person. The only way to stay on top of that volume is going to be to defer anything that is time intensive - like hunting down references and scheduling time to talk to them on the phone - until as late as possible in the hiring process. There are two schools of thought here, at least in my experience - I'm setting aside any "special" industries like the ones goo mentioned. Either you are using the reference to check for deal breakers (like lying about employment history and maybe just asking "is this person eligible for rehire?"), or you are using the references to check fit. If the former, you might wait until you are ready to make an offer to check, so you are only going to do it for your top candidate. If the latter, you would still wait, but maybe just until you had gotten down to a short list of three to five candidates and are going to use the refs to do a little more narrowing. In either event, reference checks will be rare for most candidates, because you are more likely to be in the pile of 97 that didn't get an in-person interview rather than the three who did.

Good luck with the search!
posted by kovacs at 7:39 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


So part of my job sometimes involves reference calls and honestly they're a box I have to tick and really can only hurt a candidate. By that I mean 95% of the time a reference is just confirming what I already know and doesn't really add any new info to the picture that I have. When it does it's almost always a negative piece of information and can have a negative effect on someones candidacy. One story that immediately jumps to mind is a candidates reference who was offended that his referrer was looking again after only a year and a half at his old job and was quite upset that he 'hadn't lasted very long when I went to great lengths to give a positive reference the first time'.


So that being said, I look for smooth interactions and given my experience ideally I DON'T learn any new information. Rather it's all about ticking off boxes.
posted by Carillon at 7:39 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


I used to be HR (among other things) for a small company. The #1 thing I was on the lookout for was whether someone had lied to us on either their application or in their phone interview. If they had lied, we didn't want them. If they were honest about past problems and current weaknesses, we could usually work with them on those. YMMV.

I would usually call references after a brief phone interview but before an in-person interview because our in-person interviews were usually long and involved multiple company officers and thus we didn't want to waste our time if their references were bad.

A lot of people assume that no one calls references or they just do a perfunctory "did he/she work here?" check or that they only call the references explicitly given, but I was pretty diligent about fact-checking applicants' stories. I would do my own research -- looking up former employers' direct contact information, etc. -- and I'd ask a lot of probing questions. I uncovered a lot of lying.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:53 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


What everyone's describing here is the norm, but I did have an experience with one boss who recognized a reference name as someone he knew, got curious, and called up that person to talk about me before I'd even had my interview. So that can happen, and may be one reason people do ask for them up front.

I suspect more likely it's simply to streamline the hiring process. Sometimes the actual process of getting HR to approve a hire once you've chosen that person can take agonizingly long, especially in a large organization. Any way to eliminate some of that time is a good thing, which includes having references on hand and ready to go, rather than introducing further delay while they call you, play phone tag, get references from you, etc.

I've also seen it happen that we had two very promising candidates on hand and one of the ways we tried to choose one was through the references. In that case it was again nice to just have the information handy so we could start making those calls right away.
posted by Stacey at 5:24 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


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