When you’re applying for a job, it’s tempting to think no one is REALLY going to call all your former employers to check references about previous jobs. Maybe you think that we’ll call only one of your references, like the top one on your list or whichever reference we can reach the easiest.
Well … I have some good news for a few of you. There are still employers who don’t do a thorough job of checking your references. In fact, a tiny number may not check any references at all. But the majority of employers will check your references. I always checked every single one.
And even if you might find one who doesn’t, it’s just not worth the risk. There are so many things you can do to improve your chances without lying on a job application, why risk it?
What do employers check when you apply for a job?
This varies depending on the employer, but at some point, if you are a serious candidate, they will most likely check your job references and perform a background check that includes your education and work history, often using a third-party firm that specializes in such things. So you just don’t want to take any chances.
Can a background check show previous employment?
Yes, so it’s critical that you be honest about your work history. A background check can also look at your education, your criminal record, your financial history, your medical history, or your your use of online social media.
I once knew someone who told me her brother helps people make up work history and education to help give their resumes a “better chance.” And she had him help her, too, since she didn’t have a college degree.
I tried to warn her that employers not only do background checks up front now that include education and work history verification, but also later on, at the time of a promotion or organizational change, they might decide to run a check.
And there you are, instead of getting that promotion you’re so excited about, you’re about to be fired for lying on a job application. And about to lose any references from this employer, leaving a big gaping hole when you start looking for a new job.
Who should I list as a professional reference?
More than ever, references get checked thoroughly – and quality of references may say as much about you as the actual things your references say when called. You want recent references if at all possible, from people who can talk about your abilities first-hand.
When I check references, if I see only old references – or no bosses, just coworkers – this raises a red flag. I call the candidate looking for newer references, including at least one boss, or a very good explanation why they don’t have any.
As for the idea of padding your list with a few phony references from friends or relatives … well, this could possibly work (especially if there isn’t a thorough background check) … and I understand there may be situations when it feels worth the risk, but I strongly advise against doing this.
It may feel safe to get someone you absolutely trust to vouch for you (and it once was easier to do this), but if the employer does a thorough background check, they can see that you never worked there (no pay history; no taxes) and that’s the end of your chances with this company.
Instead, try to get real references from former bosses and coworkers, especially ones who can vouch for your aptitude for the new job.
Can they contact your current employer?
If you can’t tell your current boss you’re looking, interviewers usually understand that. But you have to give them some solid references who are able to talk about what you’re like to work with and how well you’ve done in previous jobs.
Never give a recruiter or hiring manager contact information for your current employer if you don’t want them to be contacted. As long as you are able to provide solid professional references, this typically isn’t an issue.
What if you just don’t have any good references?
If you don’t have any good references, for whatever reason, make that your number one goal right this minute. It’s as important as your job hunt, since without a reference, even a job you’re perfect for might be out of your reach.
Think hard about anyone you might add to the list who would be seen as a good reference. At this point, depending on the type of job, people who worked with you a while back or maybe teachers or even clergy (perhaps you helped raise funds for the church) could be worth a try. Especially try to include people who can speak to some of the skills the new job requires.
Also, think about taking on some volunteer work or part-time / temporary work NOW. Or offer to help someone you know with a project, so they become a “boss”. This will not only bolster your references, but it will help you feel stronger in an interview.
Remember to call your references before including them!
It’s important to contact each one of your references so that you have the right contact information for them (numbers may have changed). You also want to make sure they are willing to be your reference now, even if they’ve done so in the past.
And if you sense any hesitancy or have a feeling they might not give you a good reference after all, best to leave them off the list. Since you are gathering the names, you decide who will do the best job for you.
Your references represent you at one of the most crucial times of the hiring process. Do your best to present a reference document that looks good, has no typos, and offers names of people, as recent as possible, who think highly of you and your abilities.
And tempting as it may be to fudge things, it’s just not worth the risk. Better to figure out creative ways to adjust your resume (and cover letter) truthfully to help you get to a job you don’t have to worry about losing because of some background check. You’ll wind up on firmer ground once you do land a job.