Who you list as your references can have a big impact on your ability to land a job.
During the interview process for any new job, your hiring manager will likely ask for a list of professional references. Although this may seem like a trivial matter, who you list as your references can have a big impact on your ability to land the job.
It is important to carefully select relevant job references who are familiar with your work and can attest to your abilities. Contrary to what many job seekers may believe, most hiring managers will eventually contact your references.
This typically occurs near the end of the hiring process or after a job offer has been extended. During a reference check, a potential employer is not necessarily looking to dig up dirt on you; they are, however, looking to verify the information you have given them and learn what it is like to work with you.
While it is unlikely that a hiring manager will refuse to hire you based on one poor reference, it is not impossible. Therefore, it is important to choose references who can speak honestly about your skills and abilities. Hopefully, that honesty matches up with your claims.
Sue Andrews, business and HR consultant at KIS Finance, said that employers need to know if your resume accurately represents your skills and experience, so they often rely on references to back up your claims.
“Even if you have interviewed really well and passed any tests, you still need a positive reference to back this up,” she said. “After all, the interviewer has probably only met you for a few hours, whilst a reference can comment on your performance and behavior over a much longer period of time and verify the facts.”
Why you need professional references to get a job (most of the time)
While experts we interviewed had mixed opinions about whether you need references to get a job, most of them leaned toward yes. Since employers typically use references to make hiring decisions, a lack of professional references can hurt your chances of getting a job and can even lead an employer to choose another candidate instead of you.
“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, director of internal recruiting at professional search and staffing firm Addison Group.
Although you should typically avoid personal references, they can be used in leu of professional references on select occasions. For example, if you don’t have previous work experience, or your previous employer has a “no reference” policy, Andrews 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 will wait until they are at the final shortlisting stage before contacting references. When they do, 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, and 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
There are several questions a hiring manager can ask your references. According to Andrews, hiring managers typically verify how the reference knows you, then they 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.”
They can ask questions related to your past job performance, employment dates, punctuality, strengths, weaknesses and 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.
“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, you should include a mix of professional references who can emphasize your positive attributes. For example, a manager can attest to your punctuality and abilities 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.
Andrews said the best job references are from direct managers who know you well and can speak confidently and positively about your abilities.
“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.”
If you are applying for a new job without informing your current employer, it’s OK to exclude their information from your reference list, at least until the final 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.
A “bad reference” is often imagined as a spiteful past employer who says slanderous things about you. However, due to employee defamation laws, it is 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, so 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.”
Therefore, it is important to choose your job references carefully. Andrews advised that prospects who foresee any potential issues with a reference or past employer should always inform the hiring manager upfront, preventing surprises down the line.