Skip to Main Content
March 10, 2009


Inquiring minds want to know, and no minds are more inquiring than those about to hire you. As a rule of thumb, the better the job, the higher the pay, the tougher the screening process. If you are up for a good job at a visible company your references will be checked in great detail. Be aware that your list of references is simply the beginning of the investigation a prospective employer will conduct.

When a prospective employer has completed the first round of interviews and you are in the group of top candidates, the next logical step is to check your references and interview those individuals to whom you reported. Do you know if these individuals will seal the deal or blow it away? If you are like most people, you probably haven't given your references much thought. You have instead focused on networking, tailoring your resume and building interview skills. But as you near the end of the interview process, the focus shifts. A major concern should be the quality of your references and recommendations from past employers, because they can make or break your chances.

According to Terra Dourlain, Managing Director of Allison & Taylor Reference Checking Inc., about half of all references that get checked give "mediocre to poor" responses. So it is very possible that the great job you lost out on at the last moment had nothing to do with a shortcoming on your part. It could have had more to do with what one of your references or past employers said about you.

Here is just a sampling of the comments HR people and line managers hear when they check references: "Our company policy prohibits us saying anything. All we are able to do is verify dates of employment and title." Some may go on to say things like, "Check his references very, very carefully." Other common conversations include: "Are you certain he gave my name as a reference?"; "Although we are currently in litigation..."; "We miss him very much."; "Let me see what the paperwork says I am able to give out regarding ______."; or they might seem very surprised and make other innuendoes such as: "Is he still in this field?"

References and past employers won't call and warn you that they are not going to be complimentary. With company policies changing, new employees in HR Departments, new laws concerning references, company liability when they give references, the reference situation is ever-changing. Here are ten winning ways to utilize your references:

I. Make a list of all your prospective references. Begin with the first job that is relevant to your present career. Select people who you've worked closely with or who have carefully observed your job performance. Your references need to have seen you in action. Remember, however, that whether you list them or notyour past employers may be contacted. Be sure to gather all important contact data about every potential reference including: Name; Title; Company; Address; Telephone Number; Fax Number; e-mail Address. Other individuals that may prove to be useful as references include colleagues, subordinates, suppliers and pro bono Clients.

II. Narrow the list. After you have made your list of references, select the ones you think are most willing to give you an excellent report. A typical list of references should include five to ten names, depending on the amount of experience you have accumulated.

III. Set up a meeting. It is advisable to meet with references personally if possible. At the very least, you should call them or send a note stating that you are job hunting and would like to use them as a reference. Be sure to show them your current resume, describe the position you are applying for and the qualities the company is seeking. Give them the impression that their reference is important to your obtaining the job.

IV. Confirm your personal information. Refresh their memory regarding the position you held, go over your past responsibilities, and remind them of solid results you gave the company. It's not a bad idea to visit the HR Department and verify that all information in your personnel file is correct.

V. Conduct a personal exit interview. If you feel comfortable, meet with your references to go over what they will say in response to questions regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Try not take things personally. During the conversation update them on what you are doing, and how you have been adding experience and turning old weaknesses into new strengths. If they feel you are aware of your own weaknesses it may lead them to say you are open-minded and that you strive to grow professionally. One of the key skills in the workplace is effective communications. Your reference will feel comfortable stating you are a good communicator if you have filled them in on who, why, what and when.

VI. Be prepared ahead of time. It pays to take the time early in your job search to identify and prepare your references. You can even use your references for networking purposes. Mention that you are seeking a new position when you ask to use their name as a reference. Tell them what you have been doing since the last time you worked with them. Then ask them if they know of any current job openings in your field.

VII. Communicate with your references. When a specific offer is on the horizon let your references know the company, and that you will be using them as a reference with. When you advise them of the company name they feel comfortable giving out information about you or return the call in a more timely fashion.

VIII. Follow up with your references. When you get your new position, make sure to call your reference and advise them of your new position. Keep them posted about your career, so if you need them in the future, they will remember you.

IX. Pay attention to detail. When you list your references, make sure that the contact information is correct. Should you list an incorrect telephone number, or if a reference has taken a position elsewhere, it looks as though you are totally out of touch with your references.

X. Check your references. Why leave it to chance? If you are not 100% convinced that your references and past employers will relay positive comments about you to prospective employers, then check them out. A professional employment verification and reference checking firm can either put your mind at ease, or supply you with the critical information and evidence that has been blocking your job searching efforts.



Want to be found by top employers? Upload Your Resume

Join Gold to Unlock Company Reviews

Subscribe to the Vault

Be the first to read new articles and get updates from the Vault team.