One of my favorite things to do when I help with hiring, apart from the actual interviews, is to perform the reference checks for our top candidate. You never know what interesting information you might turn up.
I especially love trying to read between the lines to see what the reference knows that they may not tell us without prompting. Even references who like you can give away a secret or two!
NOTE: Although some places may call the top two or three, I prefer waiting until we have a job candidate finalist. Otherwise, you’re just wasting the time of references who may be called again and again during a lengthy job search.
What do I try to find out when I call your references?
Please don’t think I’m just looking for dirt. I honestly usually root for the candidate we like most. It’s exciting to find the right fit, but I just want to confirm that we aren’t missing something important before making an offer.
So what kinds of things do I look for?
- Did you actually do what you said you did?
- Were you actually there when you said you were?
- Do people like working with you?
- How do you approach your work? (Attitude is so important.)
- Strengths and weaknesses from the reference’s point of view.
- Where were you particularly outstanding?
- Where might you still need improvement (even if they recommend you)?
- How do you handle stress?
- How do you handle boredom?
- Do you initiate new projects on your own?
- Do you offer suggestions?
- What kinds of things frustrate you and how do you handle them?
- What was your most memorable accomplishment?
- What did they enjoy most about working with you?
- Why do they think you left that job?
- What about this new job might be better?
- What about this new job might be a stretch?
- Would they hire you again if they could do it all over again?
- After hearing what the job is, would they recommend that we hire you?
What else do I look for in the reference’s response?
- Is there genuine enthusiasm on their part when they talk about you?
- Do they refuse to answer any questions about your performance or attitude?
- Does it feel like they are being too over-the-top in their recommendation (i.e., does it feel real to me)?
- Are they giving only the most minimal answers?
- Does it feel like they are holding something back?
- Does something feel off to me, even if I’m not sure what?
Can a former employer give you a bad reference?
It depends on where you live. While there are no federal laws about giving bad references, not all states protect employers from legal ramifications (such as, civil liability). Double check your state. If your state offers immunity for the employer, don’t stress: if you can prove that they acted with malicious intent, then they lose their immunity.
Can a previous employer disclose why you left?
Yes. Your employer can disclose why you left. If you were fired, this information may come out. Don’t surprise your future boss. Remember to be honest during the hiring process, for better and for worse. Don’t burn bridges when you leave.
Are you allowed to see your references?
Yes, you actually are allowed to ask to see your references after you obtain a job. You have this right thanks to regulations under the Data Protection Act. However, your employer is not obligated to share your references with you.
Some final thoughts
For me, reference checking is a fine art. That’s why I enjoy it so much. But not everyone approaches it that way. Sometimes, the company has a standard list of questions that each reference checker must follow. This leaves little room for getting beneath the surface, where the real story is.
And, more and more, as legal departments protect former employers against any liability, it becomes harder to get information that might be important. That’s one of the reasons I look for ways to dig.
But – and this is very important for you to know – even if I find some small weakness or something that didn’t work exactly right in a prior job, that doesn’t mean you won’t get this offer.
Not every job is right for you. The whole point for me, and why it is an art, is figuring out if you are right for THIS job. After all, if the last one was perfect, you wouldn’t have left it!