When do you check references during the hiring process?
June 22, 2011 3:34 PM   Subscribe

During the hiring process, when are references typically checked?

Over the last several weeks I had multiple interviews with an organization, and a few days after my final interview, the HR department called my references. I took this as an excellent sign--in the past, I've gotten offers shortly after the employer contacts my references. And when I was on the hiring end at my last job, we only solicited and checked references from the top candidate, because a reference check was the last stop before extending an offer. Why check more references than you have to?

So I was very surprised to learn yesterday that I was not selected for this job, especially because I'm confident my references wouldn't have said anything to outright disqualify me.

Since I'm now continuing my job search, can you tell me more about how, in your experience, reference checks work? When do you ask for references? When do you check them? Do you check multiple candidates' references? I imagine every company has a different procedure, but I'd like to arm myself with information in order to be better prepared for what's next. (Also, I'm curious.)

Posting this anonymously to avoid having my real name linked with comments about a prospective employer, especially now that--sigh--my job hunt is continuing.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I generally check after the first in-person interview, to make sure there are no red flags or experience gaps that would preclude moving someone to the next interview. A number of companies I know of check after they've narrowed down the candidates and are in the middle of making a decision, and others somewhere in-between.

I don't think it's a hard-and-fast rule that reference checks mean that you're the #1 choice, if that helps to manage your expectations.
posted by xingcat at 3:55 PM on June 22, 2011

Here where I work, the references are called to confirm a decision that is already tentatively made by a department. That is, a department really likes a person, thinks the application and interview were strong, and then the HR office follows up with the references to confirm that there are no surprises. However, I can also see this process happening for more than one applicant if there were two equally qualified candidates, and then references may be used as something of a tie breaker.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:56 PM on June 22, 2011

In my experience usually as the last step before a tentative offer.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:57 PM on June 22, 2011

In my experience, usually they are checked after the final in-person interview, if you are one of the candidates the team is considering. They may be weighing 1 or 2 other candidates as well so it doesn't mean you're a shoo-in.
posted by matildaben at 3:58 PM on June 22, 2011

I personally ask for references at the final interview and contact them only for my top candidate when I'm just about to hire. (On preview, as SpacemanStix describes, to confirm a decision.)

But I have heard of some organizations contacting references for multiple candidates. In those cases, it's also when they're just about to hire, but it's to figure out which of several similarly qualified candidates is the best fit.

Perhaps that's what happened in your case. You may have had very similar qualifications to another candidate, but that candidate's references were even more glowing or effusive than yours. It doesn't mean that you were unqualified or that your references did not provide positive references.

Good luck with the unfortunately-continuing hunt!
posted by dayintoday at 3:58 PM on June 22, 2011

We often check references for the two top candidates when it's a close decision.
posted by songs about trains at 4:00 PM on June 22, 2011

We ask for references right up front, with the application and resume. I check them only after the two interviews have both been favorable and the realistic job preview has gone well. Actually speaking with references is done basically to confirm that the candidate is as good as we think he/she is, and it is the last step before making an offer.
posted by heyheylanagirl at 4:01 PM on June 22, 2011

I'm the hiring manager for my section in State government. We are required to call references of at least our top two applicants after interview, and I also call previous supervisors even if not listed in the actual reference list.

If I have two equally qualified and likable candidates then I will be paying very close attention to what their references have to say. I ask some questions about their skillset, but more questions about their interpersonal skills. If a candidate's references skirt my questions or don't call me back, that's a red flag and I won't hire.
posted by rhapsodie at 4:03 PM on June 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm confident my references wouldn't have said anything to outright disqualify me.

The fact that they bothered means you were in the top running. However, sometimes it isn't what your references said about you, but someone else's references said about them, dig? Your people said that you were fantastic, their people said they walked on water. So it goes.

So congrats on being a runner up and good luck continuing on. Don't be fooled or discouraged by not being hired -- this is a good sign.
posted by griphus at 4:06 PM on June 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

We call the references for everyone invited to an interview - outside of unusual circumstances having references called isn't any more of a sign than getting the interview was. We try to interview 3 people per position - that's a civil service rule with us.
posted by SMPA at 4:09 PM on June 22, 2011

We're hiring for a position right now where we have two excellent candidates and are having a very hard time choosing. I'm fairly sure that HR is checking references for both of them. I wouldn't expect either to have a bad reference, but it's possible one of them could have a *stupendously awesome* reference that will nudge the candidates ahead of the other.

So I guess I'd say it's a good sign to have them checked, but unfortunately doesn't mean you're a shoo-in.
posted by Stacey at 4:20 PM on June 22, 2011

In my experience it varies a lot. The last job I went for my referees were asked to give written reports, and they were solicited before the interview (but I was interviewed). For another previous job I applied for, references were checked and I wasn't interviewed (and it certainly wasn't because of the reference reports that I wasn't interviewed). For another job, they were checked after the interview and before giving me the job.

Mrs damonism, who has some expertise in this field, has always said that references should be checked late in the process, because opinions from references might be sought to address specific issues which come up at interview. To my mind, that's the most correct way to do it, but you can't assume that everyone will do it like that.
posted by damonism at 5:29 PM on June 22, 2011

I don't work in HR, but I've done hiring at four companies over 15 years. I would say that 90% of the time, references are checked for one person only as the last step before an offer is made. And normally by that point the company is fairly to very confident that they want to hire the candidate whose references they're checking. So yeah, it's totally reasonable that you would feel surprised: what happened to you is not normal.

Myself, I have several times decided not to hire someone because of their references, but I think I am an outlier. Many hiring managers seem to treat the reference check like a box on a form that just needs to get ticked off, which I find weird --- it's anything but: it's incredibly useful. I make the calls myself and I probe pretty deeply, and always ask the litmus test question "would you hire them again." If the person giving the reference balks or stumbles at that point, it's like a flashing neon warning sign.

But I don't think that's what happened to you. Here are two guesses:

* If it's a company that's a little clueless in general, I would guess they just kind of did it wrong. Like, HR for some reason checked for multiple candidates.

* If it was a very senior role, it's possible the company does super-thorough reference-checking of multiple candidates as a normal part of its hiring process. I saw this happen once -- I got several calls from the recruiter, and later one from the hiring manager, about a person I was providing a reference for. That was an interesting company: they were extremely transparent and explicit about what they were doing, and not clueless at all. That could be what happened here, since it sounds like the process as a whole was thorough.

You shouldn't feel bad. This is almost certainly more about that company, than it is about you.
posted by Susan PG at 7:03 PM on June 22, 2011

I used to work for recruiters, and they would call references either right before a hire, or occasionally when something in a resume/interview didn't quite add up (often a suspected interpersonal issue or they didn't seem as competent in the interview as would be expected from the resume).

These were relatively specific jobs that required certain credentials or test scores. They didn't want to throw out a good candidate if they didn't have to, so they'd call references and see if they were reassuring. If they weren't absolutely glowing, they'd toss the candidate.
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:29 PM on June 22, 2011

As others have said, we typically only check the first candidate, if that candidate is the clear winner. But we'll check two or even three sets of references if there's any doubt.
posted by wilful at 8:31 PM on June 22, 2011

My company definitely has a couple more steps between reference check and hire where you could get culled. It means we're impressed, but it doesn't mean we're sold.
posted by troublesome at 10:52 PM on June 22, 2011

We check only when the applicant has advanced through the process and we're about to make an offer. It's the last step before making the offer, and then the offer is contingent on a CORI check as well.
posted by Miko at 6:10 AM on June 23, 2011

Just to throw a spanner in the works, my most recent employer calls references before scheduling interviews. That was really unexpected. It's unusual, but not impossible to be reference checked without receiving an offer. I think our policy is two calls minimum so someone's going to get a ref check without an offer.
posted by pwnguin at 10:31 AM on June 23, 2011

One of the reasons we wait is that you can't always assume that the person's current employer knows that they're looking. In a small field, even an older employer might let the cat out of the bag. So we usually wait until the 2nd interview and then ask 'is there any problem with calling your references?" If they say they'd prefer us to wait until we are ready to make an offer before calling their current employer, we can do that, but then of course the offer is contingent on a positive reference.
posted by Miko at 2:12 PM on June 23, 2011

Where I'm at now, strangely enough we don't tend to contact the referees until after we hire the person. Never seen that happen before. Usually the last two or three interviewees referees will be contacted, and often it's the clinching factor, in my experience.
posted by Philby at 3:46 AM on June 24, 2011

After the phone interview, but before the in-person interview. So we don't have to spend money to bring in someone with bad references.
posted by WizKid at 8:01 AM on June 24, 2011

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