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How Important Are Job References?

Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
Staff writer
business.com Staff
Updated Jan 23, 2023

Who you list as your references can have a big impact on your ability to land a job.

Job references are a more involved process than picking a few people at random for a recommendation. Employers typically use references to make hiring decisions, and a lack of them can hurt your chances of getting a position. It could even lead an employer to choose another candidate over you. 

References should be close friends or colleagues. These individuals should be able to effortlessly point out all your strengths and act as your cheerleader to help you get that next job. Let’s look at how to navigate the hiring process while providing references that help you stay competitive in the job market.

The importance of job references

“References can help a hiring manager who is teetering between two candidates, affirm a gut feeling, or possibly provide insight into a question mark,” said Claudia Johnson, VP internal recruiting at professional search and staffing firm Addison Group.

Although you should typically avoid personal references, they can be used in lieu of professional references under certain circumstances. For example, if you don’t have previous work experience or your previous employer has a “no reference” policy, Sue Andrews, business and HR consultant at KIS Finance, said you can use a character reference from a teacher or someone else in a position of authority who knows you well.

A list of credible references should always be a tool in one’s job-hunting toolbox, but there is the slight possibility that your references may not be contacted, depending on the company you are applying to.

“It may also be the company’s policy not to ask for references,” said Johnson. “I see this a lot with larger firms who may have other steps in place, such as certain tests and cross-department or role interviews.”

Regardless of the company’s policies, it is still wise to have access to your professional references, just in case.

When and how employers check your job references

Andrews said most employers wait until they are at the final shortlisting stage before contacting references. When they do check, she said, it is usually in writing or via email, but some employers may also call. 

According to Johnson, hiring managers will typically ask for three professional references. The references you provide should each offer unique value to the employer.

“Candidates should provide a mix of references, including someone they previously reported to, a peer, and/or somebody from a different department that they worked closely with,” said Johnson.

When employers speak with these references, they will be checking the claims in your resume and interview. Andrews said to resist the temptation to exaggerate your skills and experience, as it could backfire on you during this stage.

What questions a hiring manager may ask your job references

A hiring manager can ask your references several types of questions. According to Andrews, hiring managers typically verify how the reference knows you, then move on to questions about your tenure.

“They’ll want to verify any information that you’ve provided, such as job titles, key responsibilities and potentially pay, to make sure that this stacks up against what you’ve told them,” said Andrews. “They’ll also want to check out any claims that you’ve made, such as projects that you’ve undertaken or results that you’ve delivered.”

>> Learn More: Hiring Challenges Facing Small Business Owners

Common questions a hiring manager asks your references:

  • Job titles
  • Key responsibilities
  • Pay
  • Past job performance
  • Employment dates
  • Punctuality
  • Strengths 
  • Weaknesses
  • Ability to work as part of a team

They may even provide details on the job you’re applying for and ask the reference if they think you would be a good fit.

TipTip: Be careful not to burn bridges. “A key question that most will ask is whether the person giving the reference would rehire you and why,” said Andrews. “For this reason, it’s always best to try to leave a job on good terms, even if you’re leaving because you don’t like working there, as you want to have left a positive impression behind.”

Who to list as your professional references

As Johnson said, include a mix of professional references who can emphasize your positive attributes. For example, a manager can attest to your punctuality and ability to meet deadlines, whereas a co-worker can attest to your teamwork skills. A current or former client can speak on behalf of your customer service skills, and a supervisee can comment on your management abilities. Job-hunting college graduates can also use former professors.

Andrews said the best job references are from direct managers who know you well and can speak confidently and positively about your abilities.

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The best mix of professional references to provide:

  • Managers (direct manager is best)
  • Co-workers
  • Current or former clients
  • Supervisees
  • Teachers or mentors

“You want someone who is familiar with your work and can talk knowledgeably about your achievements,” Andrews said. “If possible, avoid asking for a reference from someone whose own written or verbal skills are lacking, as this could mean a less-than-enthusiastic reference.”

FYIFYI: If you are applying for a new job without informing your current employer, it’s OK to exclude their information from your reference list until the final HR interview stages.

“Once the new employer is at the final decision stage, they will probably want a reference from your most recent manager,” said Andrews. “In this case, you can ask for a firm job offer to be made first, which can be subject to a good reference.”

Why bad references can hurt your job prospects

It is important to ask someone for their permission before adding them to your reference list and remember to give them a heads-up when you are applying for a new job. Inform them of the position you are applying for and which qualities you would like to be highlighted. 

Johnson said this notification will prepare your reference for what’s to come, minimizing the risk of being caught off guard and accidentally giving you a less-than-stellar reference.

How to get good references:

  • Ask your reference for permission before adding them to your resume.
  • Notify your reference every time you apply for a new position.
  • Be transparent about what the new position entails and what qualities/skill you want them to feature.
  • Keep up with who may be contacting them (long-distance numbers, name and position of contact).

A bad reference is often imagined as a spiteful past employer who says slanderous things about you. However, employee defamation laws make it uncommon for previous employers to spread negative lies about candidates. 

Instead, a bad reference is typically someone who is ill-prepared, quiet or unresponsive. If a reference speaks in vague terms or gives short responses, it may reflect poorly on you.

According to Andrews, most hiring managers will understand if a reference isn’t as positive as you had hoped, as long as you have a genuine explanation for the discrepancies.

“Maybe you just didn’t get along with a particular manager, or perhaps they are still aggrieved that you left the organization,” said Andrews. “However, if there’s a pattern to the references, such as reports of poor performance or being difficult to manage, then this will be very damaging to your job prospects.”

Choose your job references carefully. Andrews advised that prospects who foresee potential issues with a reference or past employer should inform the hiring manager upfront to prevent surprises down the line.

Additional reporting by Julie Thompson. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

Image Credit: Production Perig / Shutterstock
Skye Schooley
Skye Schooley
business.com Staff
business.comb.
Skye Schooley is a human resources writer at business.com and Business News Daily, where she has researched and written more than 300 articles on HR-focused topics including human resources operations, management leadership, and HR technology. In addition to researching and analyzing products and services that help business owners run a smoother human resources department, such as HR software, PEOs, HROs, employee monitoring software and time and attendance systems, Skye investigates and writes on topics aimed at building better professional culture, like protecting employee privacy, managing human capital, improving communication, and fostering workplace diversity and culture.