References matter.

While a great resume may land the candidate an interview, glowing references will seal the deal.  Whether a candidate has years of experience under their belt or is entering the workforce, the quality of references can act as a powerful lever in the job hunting toolkit.  While time and effort is usually spent on ensuring the resume and cover letter is attractive and interviewing skills are polished, candidates often overlook the preparation needed in acquiring the right references; those that will bolster and confirm the candidate and their skills.  Often, a favourable reference from the right sources can make the difference in moving from a candidate to an employee.

Reference checks are part of standard hiring practices in most companies, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.[1] Their 2009 survey found 75% of HR professionals worldwide did reference checks on every job candidate and 55% said they were necessary to reduce legal liability for negligent hiring.[2]  In today’s competitive market, prospective employers faced with the challenge of hiring qualified employees will routinely check job references and interview past employers, as it is the only practical means of verifying the skills and experience a candidate has presented.  As a rule of thumb, the senior the job and the higher the pay, the thorough the screening process is.[3]  In other words, the importance of references increases the further upward one moves in their career.  This is echoed by founder, Sabeer Bhatia, that for high level positions, references play the most important role in the selection of the candidate.[4]

The references provided work in favour of both the employer and candidate.  As a hirer, making such a critical investment warrants ensuring the right choice is made.  This choice will often be influenced by the references provided.  The Human Resources Professional Association’s chair says it is one of the best ways to confirm what may already be known about the applicant, how well they will fit in, and what their future potential is.[5]  Many candidates underestimate the power of their references and can consequently be passed over for employment. A staffing company in Toronto found that 1 in 4 job candidates are taken out of the running after hiring managers conducted reference checks.[6] If a candidate is being considered for a role at a sophisticated organization, the reference checking process will be standard procedure and references as well as past employers will be checked in great detail.

Important in the job hunting process is deciding on appropriate professional references.  Just one mediocre or poor reference could cost the candidate the desired position.  Likewise, lukewarm, or incomplete references could be the deciding factor between the candidate and another qualified potential.  Therefore, selecting appropriate people can place the candidate in a positive light.  It is important to remember that the person serving as a reference does more than just verify a candidate’s past employment and performance in a position, but is often asked questions pertaining to their character, skills, and attitude.  A reference check can reveal information that a candidate misleads about or omits in an interview.

To maximize the accuracy of a good reference:

Think strategically about reference choices

References should be people who will make the strongest recommendations for the candidate and will compliment their resume.  Former or current supervisors are not mandatory especially if they are not aware of the candidate’s current accomplishments or if there is fear of negative information.  It may be wise to consider former co-workers or supervisors in other departments who are more familiar with the candidate’s work and capabilities.  But someone who will only provide dates of employment and job titles should be avoided, as hiring managers will feel their time is wasted by calling on those who don’t know the candidate very well.  The key is the selection of people who are aware of the candidate’s strengths and abilities and will say honest and positive things.

Consider selecting different categories of references

References should be selected where strong professional camaraderie exists between the reference and candidate.  Candidates need to consider the message they are trying to convey.  For example, a sales manager trying to demonstrate competent leadership and account management skills might select a supervisor or a key account contact.  Similarly, former workers who once reported to the candidate can be good sources to reinforce the candidate’s management skills.  In certain industries, providing a variety of references such as vendors, customers or business associates from outside the company is acceptable.

Provide detailed and current information about references

Research shows that verbal references can have the most positive effect on a candidate’s employment outcome.[7] In submitting contact information, references’ phone numbers should be given as priority over e-mail addresses.  Reference checks conducted over the phone are more personal, and will allow the hiring company to hear the reference’s enthusiasm and admiration for the candidate and their abilities.  Information should be verified for current methods of contact.  Prospective employers should not waste time tracking down outdated information, that can also negatively impact the candidate.  While letters of recommendation have less impact than telephone interviews, they can still be helpful.  Information such as titles and names can change over time and those references should be updated periodically.

Get permission to use someone as a reference

Once potential references are identified, their willingness to act in that capacity should be confirmed to avoid any surprises when the hiring company makes the call.  It is unprofessional to ask a reference to respond in a specific way, however prepping them on what the candidate would like them to discuss with the hiring manager is appropriate.  Nevertheless a good reference needs to be able to answer questions such as dates of employment, length of time known to reference, professional relationship to candidate, position/job title, description of duties, quality and quantity of work, leadership/managerial or technical skills, strengths/ weaknesses, attendance, punctuality, dependability.

Speak with references beforehand

Candidates’ should take control by finding out what each potential reference will say.  Normally, references range from outstanding to negative. References should be checked in advance to reveal discrepancies.  This will also be an opportunity to prevent references from saying things that are inaccurate or not true.  When what will be said is known, the best references can be put forth with greater confidence.

References should be given information about the job for which the candidate is applying and if necessary, provided with an updated resume to become familiarized with the qualifications and characteristics that should be emphasized during the reference check.

References can be asked to clarify their perception of the candidate’s accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses.  A good rule of thumb is if they can’t speak candidly with the candidate about his or her work performance, then there’s reason to suspect their opinion may be negative.[8] There should be agreement on the work history and relationship to avoid simple inconsistencies.

Follow up with references

Keeping in touch and thanking each reference for the recommendation they provided can leave the door open to them serving as references again.  Each has been a valuable tool in the candidate receiving an offer and small tokens of appreciation such as coffee meetings, thank you notes or brief phone calls demonstrate the candidate’s appreciation for their assistance in landing the job. maintains that reference checking is still a critical factor in hiring.[9] References can shed light on an applicant’s personality, confirm factual information that candidates’ provide and often reveals more in-depth information that cannot be ascertained during an interview, such as quality of performance or perhaps criminal convictions.  Employers are often pressed to make quick hiring decisions as they cannot afford to lose the applicant of their choice.  Strong references make them more confident in their decision.  One enthusiastic, informed reference can make the difference; two or three can have an overwhelming effect.  References also remain a strong tool available to candidates and should not be underestimated.  As a candidate’s past will have bearing on their future, doing due diligence to ensure references will be an asset will pay dividends.

– Written by Vikki Ali

This blog is a compilation of information gathered from:

References: The Keys to Choosing and Using the Best Job References in Your Job Search.
References: Strategy for Candidates.
Importance of Job References.
10 Tips for Top Notch References.
The Importance of Your References.
Choosing Employment References for Your Resume.
[1] John, Marjo.  How good references can make all the difference.  Globe and Mail.  October 8, 2010
[2] John, Marjo.  How good references can make all the difference.  Globe and Mail.  October 8, 2010
[3] Allison & Taylor.  Resumes Win Interviews, But References Win Job Offers.
[4] Nelson, Richard.  What Color Is Your Parachute?.1998
[5] John, Marjo.  How good references can make all the difference.  Globe and Mail.  October 8, 2010
[6] John, Marjo.  How good references can make all the difference.  Globe and Mail.  October 8, 2010
[7] Shanman, Eric.  The Importance of Your References.  October 2010
[8] Oliver, Susan.  What you don’t know can hurt you! Job Central.  December 2002.
[9] Balderrama, Anthony.  How to Handle References.  December, 2007