Don't Sweat the Reference Checks

4/8/2019, By Sze-Yen Chee

You have survived and triumphed during the many interviews you had to attend and are now a finalist candidate! What’s next?


Before the company decides to offer you the job, they will probably ask for references.


Reference checking typically takes place towards the end of the interview process just before an offer is made. Sometimes, reference checking can happen earlier depending on the recruiter and the recruitment cycle.


In any job search process, a key thing that needs to be done is to prepare and think about your referees. A well-intentioned but poorly prepared reference can do more harm than good.


What is the purpose of reference checking?


To the potential employer, it provides some comfort that the candidate is authentic. He is who he says he is. With the increasing incidence of candidates falsifying their credentials and embellishing on their experience and achievements, some employers require significant background checks, including academic credentials and employment verification.


Personal references will provide a report that is congruent to the stories that the candidate has been telling. A skilled reference checker will ask questions that will lead the referee to share examples and give specifics.


Typical reference check questions include:

  • What was his role/position when you worked together?
  • How long did he work in that position?
  • Why is he leaving (or has left) the organization?
  • What responsibilities did he have?
  • Describe his key competencies and strengths
  • Describe his developmental needs
  • How did he perform in his role? How would you describe his performance?
  • Provide an example of his achievement
  • Would you employ (want to work with) him again?

 Who can be your referees?

Recruiters will ask that your referees be made up of superiors (direct manager, team lead, project supervisor), peers or colleagues, clients, vendors, business partners, and subordinates. These are people who worked with you in a professional capacity. So no relatives, school friends or soccer buddies.

 How to prepare your referees?

Identify key areas you want emphasized in support of your career or the role you are being considered for. The reference checker might ask for examples, so make sure the referee can support their statements with some evidence.


  • Arrange for meeting or phone conversation. Review questions your referee may be asked.
  • Tell your referee about the kind of job you’re seeking. Ask if they’re comfortable recommending you for such a position. Give them a copy of your resume, clarify your accomplishments, and answer questions they may have.
  • Suggest to your referee that you would appreciate strong recommendations in the key areas and traits mentioned above.
  • Ask the referee what he/she thinks about your weaknesses or developmental areas: “May I ask you what you think are my developmental needs so that you and I are consistent?”
  • Clarify the reason your previous organization (or why you are looking to leave your current organization. You need a congruent story, as reasons for leaving may sometimes be vague.
  • Write a summary so your referee can refer to it. The summary will consist of the key points raised during your conversation and the traits and strengths to be emphasized – your career focus, summary of strengths, developmental needs, and reasons for leaving.
  • Tell your referee who will be getting in touch with them so they are not surprised when the call comes. Even better, schedule the call yourself if possible.
  • Gain your referee’s commitment to call you if anyone contacts him or her.
  • Keep your referees posted on your job search.


In the event your referee has a poor opinion say, of your developmental needs or weaknesses, don’t argue. Listen carefully. Offer more favorable wording. It’s not the end of the world if your referee gives one or two ‘not-so-good’ comments, it shows you’re human and we all have areas of improvement. The important thing is to have a consistent story.


I have often been asked if referees should be listed on resumes. The answer is no. Do not waste space in your resume stating the obvious “References will be provided upon request.” It is understood.


You want to control the formal reference checking process and prevent overzealous recruiters from calling your referees too early and too often. Some recruiters may just do so before you’re considered a finalist.


If overused in situations where you are not a finalist for a job, you run the risk of your referees becoming less than enthusiastic resulting in a poorer response when you really need them.


Letters of reference or testimonials

Another question I’m frequently asked is whether testimonials and reference letters can be used in lieu of a reference check. The reality is hiring managers rarely look at reference letters. It’s much better to have your references write recommendations on your LinkedIn page.


When your former superior is not a good referee

Say you did not get along with your previous supervisor, and your future employer will be looking to speak to your former boss as a referee. Offer the information before it is requested. Raise the issue yourself, so you can tell it your way. Offer alternative referees who acted in some way as your supervisor, such as board members, project heads, cross functional managers to name a few.


Minimize weak references

Reference checking can be formal or informal. Informal or blind references will happen without your knowledge and consent, and may be beyond your control. Therefore you must ensure that your formal references are properly prepared.


Excluding your former boss from your list of referees is a red flag for most recruiters: “Why did you not include your immediate manager as a reference?”


While in interview, you may exclude a potentially weak reference from a former boss by offering the following:


“My boss had a heavy travel schedule and we worked independently of one another. Consequently he did not have much knowledge of my results as the other managers. You are welcome to call him, but please keep in mind he doesn’t know me as well the other referees on my list.”


“We worked in a matrixed organization. While he was my location manager and immediate supervisor, the business direction came from the head of my business unit with whom I worked more closely and he has more intimate knowledge of my projects and results.”


References can make or break a deal. Take the time to meet and discuss areas you’d like to emphasize. Always brief them ahead of a formal reference check call. Ask them if they would notify you after each reference check. Do not forget to say thank you or send a note of appreciation!

Do contact us at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments!