If you’re searching for a new job, you know that reference checking is an integral part of the process. Any job seeker should expect that a prospective employer will ask for references and will perform at least a cursory check.
But what is involved? Why does a potential employer want to speak with references? What can your references say? What are the restrictions?
Let’s unpack the most frequently-asked questions about references. The first question is usually why employers check references. After all, what relevance does someone else’s opinion have? Ultimately, employers conduct reference checks as part of their due diligence in hiring. Hiring is an expensive proposition, and the costs of a bad hire are high—as much as a full year’s salary for an exempt employee—so managers are looking to mitigate risk at the outset as best they can. Speaking directly with people who’ve worked with the candidate can give insight into critical areas of performance that could be otherwise difficult to ascertain. Some things that can be vetted via speaking with references include what it’s like to work with a candidate on a day-to-day basis, an assessment of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and a generalized opinion on the applicant’s ability to do the job, along with an appraisal of the candidate’s potential performance.
A question I frequently field involves what references can and cannot disclose. The short answer is that your references can say pretty much anything they want to, as long as it’s true. Can your previous manager say that you spent your days plotting a coup to topple western democracy? Well, I guess they could, but this would be dismissed out of hand and would put this person at risk for litigation. But could someone say that you were difficult to get along with and that you did not rise to the occasion of being a team player? Absolutely. My point is that, in general, a reference can say anything they want. Many companies have policies and rules around the kinds of information about former employees that can be disclosed, but these policies are very frequently ignored. HR policies of individual employers are not legally binding. As long as no one ventures into defamation territory, pretty much everything is fair game. And no, you do not need to give permission to anyone to speak with a former manager. That is yet another myth which abounds. Let me be clear—a recruiter or hiring manager can contact and talk with whomever they wish. And a former manager or colleague has the same latitude.
And who should you ask to be your reference? Ideally, a hiring manager is going to want to speak with someone who has had direct experience managing your performance. That’s not always possible, as in the case in which you’re presently employed. But the critical thing to know is that much reference-checking goes on behind the scenes. LinkedIn has truly changed the game here. A hiring manager or recruiter can easily see common connections and make a few calls. The list of references you provide is often irrelevant. Good managers dig deep before they extend offers. Good managers will go beyond the list of submitted names to evaluate a candidate’s reputation and history.
The bottom line
Be prepared for a potential employer to go “off-script” and to contact people you’ve not provided and to ask some really probing questions. This isn’t an attempt to trip you up, but rather an assurance that they’re making the best possible hire. On your end, you wield similar power. Don’t be shy about asking for and checking references on a prospective manager or team. The employment and hiring process is a two-way street. Approach it with your attention focused on arriving at your destination.