Q&A with Dr. Helen – What You Need to Know About Reference Checks
Q&A with Dr. Helen – What You Need to Know About Reference Checks

reference checks are now easier because of technologyQ1. In 2015 you wrote a blog article that asked if the reference check process is still worthwhile. The short answer was a definite yes.  Is this still true 3 years later despite the growing reliance on online job applications and electronic/social networking?

A1. In many respects, I believe that a reference from a previous employer is even more important and more relevant than ever because so much of the hiring process is online and impersonal.

With screening being done by software and face-to-face job interviews being replaced by video calls to expedite hiring in large organizations, employers are relying on online information from applicants more than ever before. In my opinion, this makes it more likely that important information is overlooked. This mostly digital approach can be problematic for multiple reasons.



male job applicant confident that interview and reference check went wellQ2.  You don’t strike me as old-fashioned or anti-technology. Can you list a few problems associated with this modern approach?

A2. Thank you! I’m often an early adopter and a big proponent of the smart use of technology. When hiring moves (mostly) online, depending on how it’s implemented, many mistakes are possible.

For starters, a job applicant can easily exaggerate their previous work roles or overstate their education or professional credentials on an online screening questionnaire. If an employer has appropriate ways to validate and confirm this information, then it’s fine. When, however, the employer has no reliable way to confirm this information, it’s a slippery slope downward.  A well-structured reference check (including a background check) is an excellent way to verify and clarify information provided by the most promising job applicants.

It is increasingly difficult to stand out when applying for a job online. This is especially true for qualified but humble applicants. So, a solid job reference from a previous employer is a great way for a candidate’s past accomplishments to shine through and help distinguish between candidates who are good self-promoters and candidates who are good workers.  


Q3. It appears that most experienced managers/employers understand the benefits of doing a thorough reference check before hiring a candidate. Do you find job applicants are less enthusiastic about this process?

A3. On the surface, and to outsiders, it looks as though most managers and employers understand the importance of a reference check. One problem that I see far too often is that they consider the reference check to be a mere formality. It’s a quick phone call that they make so that they can basically ‘check the box’ that they’ve done a reference check. In my opinion, this is a missed opportunity to collect and confirm some important information from two or three people who should have a good familiarity with the job applicant’s work ethic, reliability, and abilities.

Employers and hiring managers aren’t the only ones who ‘go through the motions’ when it comes to reference checks. I’ve heard clients express their frustration, and even anxiety with having to provide additional information after submitting a well-crafted cover letter, a detailed resume, and participating in a preliminary and other ‘real’ interviews. In most organizations, there are good reasons to consider a potential employee’s past, to confirm their skills, experience, and knowledge – and also how they apply those skills and knowledge (i.e., their soft skills). The best reference checks prevent the company from hiring someone who is incompetent or a bad fit for the role and the work environment. Depending on the industry, the reference check can also help to protect the business from security breaches (including cybercrimes) caused by insider threats.

I can appreciate that most job applicants don’t want to jump through unnecessary hoops to land a job. But, for the better jobs, being asked for references should be taken as a sign that the employer knows what they’re doing and doesn’t hire everybody who applies and says some of the right things during an interview.



Q4. In your experience, should an applicant provide their work references upfront, (such as attach them to the resume) or should they wait to be asked? Is there any harm in either?

A4. From what I’ve seen first-hand, going back almost 20 years, references are only checked for the most promising job applicants – near the end of the hiring process. A decent reference check takes time to complete so it does not make sense to invest the time that’s required to do a thorough one until you’re prepared to make an offer.

Unless you’re asked for the names and contact information for references upfront, I think it’s better to provide them when you’re asked for them.



Q5. Going back to some job applicants feeling hassled or reluctant to provide a reference from a superior, isn’t it possible that they may have a good reason not to? For instance, if their last place of employment was toxic? What if their boss was harassing them, or their manager just didn’t like them? Similarly, what if they don’t want their current employer to know they are planning to leave? 

A5. These are such important questions and the answers aren’t black and white. Since there’s so much nuance to this question, and potentially so much at stake, I’ve included several clickable links so that you can drill down to get more information that’s most relevant to your circumstances. When you’ve been made the scapegoat or harassed or bullied at work, it really won’t feel good to ask the ‘offender’ to be a good, reliable reference. In many cases, you probably shouldn’t count on an honest (and positive) testimonial of your value as an employee.


If you’re stuck and/or have questions about who to list as a reference – or you want to make better use of reference checks when hiring new staff, I invite you to contact me by emailfree 15-minute phone consultation, or via direct message on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn.


More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.


I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.


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