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Everything You Need to Know About References for Your Job Search

Is anyone else nervous about compiling a list of professional references?

Reference checks are an expected part of the hiring process. In practice, they range from cursory check-the-box exercises to an in-depth set of interviews with people who are not on your reference list. Under the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to know what to expect. Even if you have enjoyed good working relationships with your references, you can never be completely certain they won’t say something that might damage your chances of getting a job.

A glowing recommendation can make the hiring decision; a non-enthusiastic one hurt your candidacy. Would you like some strategies around professional references? Here are 10 ideas to keep in mind.

1. The answer to “Can we contact your former manager?” is always “Yes.”

Regardless of how well you worked together, saying that you don’t want your former manager contacted is a red flag to your potential employer. In their eyes, it implies that the employment reference won’t be positive, or that you had lied about your position. Don’t say “No” because you don’t want to bother a busy professional. Whether or not your former manager chooses to take the call is up to them, but don’t hurt your chances by making this decision for them.  

To be clear, the situation is completely different if the hiring manager wants to speak with your current boss. In that case, it is appropriate to hold off until you have an offer (the hiring manager can make it contingent upon references).

2. Should you be concerned if the company policy is to only confirm dates of employment?

I hear this question frequently. Limiting disclosed information to dates of employment is a stated policy in many companies, put in place to protect managers from libel lawsuits. In theory, the policy allows the hiring manager to verify that you were truthful about having worked at that company, but tells him nothing about your performance. If a past manager cannot sing your praises because of a company-wide ban on discussing performance with a third party, does that hurt your candidacy?

3. Your manager is a stronger professional reference than your peers.

You have your choices when it comes to the names you list as references. Keep in mind that your direct manager makes a stronger reference than your peers. Because they supervised your work, they can speak to your ability to take feedback, and to your overall performance in the categories that matter most to your job description. Your peers cannot do that, as they only interact with you in a lateral way.

4. The right time to offer references is when you’re asked for them.

Don’t volunteer this information on the first interview, or any time before you are asked.

Think of your professional references as a valuable limited resource. You want to be able to give them specific notice of an upcoming call (ideally, with a general description of the company and the position you are interviewing for). That way, they can be prepared to offer specific examples that would be most relevant and impactful to showcase you in the best light.

Holding back the professional reference list until it is requested also allows you to be respectful of the time your past managers and colleagues will have to spend fielding calls. Some recruiters make reference check calls before you even become a serious candidate, or use the names to expand their own marketing list – both practices can hurt your professional relationships.

5. Should you warn your references?

Yes, absolutely. Send a quick email or make a call to let them know that you have given their name as an employment reference.

6. Isn’t a job offer that is contingent on a reference check with your current manager risky?

Yes. It is possible that a poor or even a lukewarm reference can lead your prospective employer to reconsider the offer.

What can you do to minimize the risk? First of all, push back if there is not an actual offer on the table. A thumbs-up, a double wink or an “I have a good feeling about this” statement from your recruiter does not count. If the prospective employer insists on a professional reference check before the offer, you can volunteer other references first, but keep your current manager off-limits until the offer is firm.

Make sure the negotiations are complete and the details of the offer are ironed out. In a perfect world, all that should be left is the reference check and your acceptance. At that point, give your current manager advance warning. Be professional and honest, but don’t resign until you have accepted the offer.

There is good news in this for you. In my experience, an offer contingent on employment reference checks means that the checks are likely to be cursory. The prospective employer typically wants to be sure you have not misrepresented major facts.

7. What do you do when you need personal references?

Don’t use your family or relatives. Consider listing your landlord, someone at the organization where you are volunteering, a fellow player in a local sports league, a professor (if your graduation is fairly recent) or a fellow student. The goal of a personal reference is to demonstrate that you are a decent human being.

8. Is there a guarantee that the prospective employer will limit the calls to your reference list?

No. They can call anyone. In fact, savvy recruiters will check on companies that you have obviously omitted from your vetted list. They may have their own networks in your old company, so don’t expect that they will just call the two people you have listed.

A big takeaway from this is don’t burn bridges. Even if you don’t think you will ever use that particular manager as a professional reference, don’t get cavalier about it.

9. What questions can the hiring manager ask your reference?

Anything, as long as it’s not protected information such as race, disability, religion, national origin and age. They can ask about your strengths and weaknesses, the details of why you left, how well you received feedback, and whether they would hire you back if they could.

10. What do you do when a reference you thought would be positive turns negative?

This is a difficult one. You thought you had a great working relationship, the performance reviews had been good, but for some reason the former manager gives you a less than enthusiastic endorsement (or an outright negative one). What do you do?

The most constructive strategy is to let it go, unless your former manager had misrepresented your performance. He is entitled to his opinion, even if you disagree with it. You may be feeling hurt and blindsided, and those feelings are completely valid. There just isn’t a lot you can do once the reference has been given. Even if it has cost you a great opportunity, be gracious and professional with the prospective employer.

If you had a good relationship and want to attempt to change the outcome of future reference conversations, you may consider speaking with your former manager. Let them know that their reference is hurting your ability to get an offer, and see if there is a middle ground you might reach. There is no guarantee that they will agree, but it may be worth the try in certain circumstances.

In the end, making the most of your employment references is about being an asset to the company you are with, and making smart decisions about timing while you are going through the interview process for your new opportunity. Be professional, say thank you, and do your best to leave your position better than you had found it. If you are going to quit, do so with integrity. Malicious and sociopathic managers aside, doing those things consistently will assure you a good reference: “She is fantastic! We wish we could keep her, but since we cannot, you should definitely hire her.”

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!