Job Applications: When and How Does an Employer Check Your References?
Job seekers often ask, “when will an employer start checking my references?” or “when will they ask for my references?” or even “what does it mean if they are checking references?”
If an employer is checking references, it is a good indication that they are getting serious (and very close) to making you an offer on the job you’ve applied and interviewed for. Do not assume, however, that you have the job in the bag just because an employer is checking references.
There was a time when you simply handed your job references to the employer after the first interview or sent it along with your resume. But, with a few exceptions, most employers ask for your references only when they are ready for them, not before. And while it is a clue you may be getting the offer, I’ll explain later why that’s not always the case.
There was also a time (not so now) when it was expected for you to add a phrase like “References available upon request” at the bottom of your resume. That always amused me, because it was such an obvious thing to say. I mean, was the job applicant going to refuse to provide references?
“We’d like to offer you that job you want. May we have your references?”
“Naaah. S’all good. You know enough about me without them.”
In today’s job market, references are an essential part of the job application and hiring process. And, to the best of your ability, they better be good references who can speak about you and your recent job performance.
The basic reference checking process
Varies with employers, but:
- Have a solid list of references ready – including someone at your current workplace if at all possible. Three references are usually enough. Include bosses (other than current workplace if that’s a problem). A list of only co-workers can look suspicious. And if you only have friends or your parents as references, think again – perhaps you can get references from teachers or any jobs or volunteer experiences you’ve ever had.
- Check with each reference to verify their contact information is current and to make sure they are available and willing.
- Most employers will call your references only if you are the final candidate or one of the final two. Occasionally the final three or four. Every now and then an employer will check all the people they interview, although to me that’s inconsiderate of the reference. But the majority of employers will wait until they are close to making an offer.
UPDATE: I’m hearing more and more about employers who check references BEFORE a first interview. While I don’t like this at all, since it doesn’t respect the valuable time of your references and can give you false hope (you may not even get called to come in), if that’s the way they do it, you need to comply if you want the job. Just let your references know the situation.
Can a previous employer disclose why you left?
Yes, a previous employer can disclose why you left. That said, a fear of lawsuits typically prevents previous employers from going too deep—or giving out too much information—when disclosing the reason as to why an employee left the company.
Do they really contact previous employers?
A reference checker contacts previous employers if you list a previous employer as a reference. Reference checkers are typically interested in speaking to previous employers, so you need to think carefully about who you want to have as a reference from a previous place of employment. Only consider managers or co-workers who can speak highly of your talents and abilities.
What a reference can and can’t say
At one time, references would tell you everything you want to know about the person. And some still do. But current practice, based on a strong desire to avoid any lawsuits, is to tell as little as possible, or at least not to go into the “good stuff” a reference checker is pushing to find out. I admit, if I have any sense something is being withheld, I dig for more.
Positions are so hard to get approved, you just don’t want to buy someone else’s problems. Then again, someone who didn’t do well in one place (perhaps because of the boss or workplace climate) may shine in the next place. So a good reference checker tries to get a sense of that, too.
Usually, people give us the references they know will make them look as good as possible. And we know that, also. Still, after talking to a few references, you start to get a picture. And if there is almost nothing being offered other than the basics or occasional pauses and even silences, you do start to wonder – even if nothing specific is said.
If the references seem to be holding back, we usually try to ask it another way, like “would you hire them again?” The way they answer, even if the words are polite, tells us a lot. So make an extra effort to get references that can speak to your strengths, and who will be willing to do so!
A reference check is NOT an offer
I’ve been contacted by job applicants who heard that their references were being checked, and then they never received a job offer. Does it mean the reference shot them down? Well, could be. But even with good references, the hiring team still goes back over the entire interview process and all the other candidates and determines the best fit.
Also, things may change at the company that no one expects. So not being hired does not mean your references screwed you. Still, if this happens more than once, it pays to check in with them and ask politely if there is anything you need to know.
That said, if an employer is checking your references it’s a good sign, and more often than not it does result in an offer. So keep those fingers crossed.
What if you don’t have current or any job references?
Maybe you can’t let anyone at your job know you’re looking, and your former references are no longer available, or at least you can’t find them; this can happen during mergers and when companies go bust. So what do you do?
First, do all you can to find former bosses or colleagues. Use LinkedIn search or use a search engine. If you enter the person’s name and the company where you worked together, you may find them. Even if the company doesn’t exist, the references still have value.
If you’ve tried your best, you may have to go back and ask former teachers or people you’ve volunteered with or someone you’ve helped recently, even if for no money. And if you have none of that, create some current references asap by doing volunteer work or some temp work or even offering your services for free to local company or friend / relative’s company.
You don’t want a lack of references to keep you from getting a job offer. And any of those things can also add to your employability.
Does the employer call every reference?
Some do. Some don’t. I almost always did, unless I thought some of them irrelevant, like a friend or relative, or way out-of-date reference. And if I didn’t see a recent job reference or any of the candidate’s bosses listed, I called the candidate and asked for better references. Not everyone will go that far, but I think many will.
When it comes to job references, it pays to be prepared with solid, recent references who can speak to your qualifications – especially those that relate to the job you want. And it also pays to have all your references up-to-date and validated. The less red flags you raise with your references or anything else, the better!