How to deal with reference checks

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Reference checks used to matter a lot. Fifty years ago. When people only changed jobs twice in their life, and they didn't know anyone outside of their company, it made sense that the second company called the first company.

Then, when it became clear that the first company could say one, tiny bad thing and then make this person unemployable (because they had only worked for one person their whole life), giving bad references basically became illegal.

So that pretty much put the kibosh on the usefulness of corporate references. Yet people still ask for them today. So here are some ways to get a good reference.

Get a ringer lined up ahead of time.

There is no rule that says you have to use your last employer as a reference. Explain to a prospective employer that you are giving the name of a person who knows you well and can speak to the issues this particular employer is interested in. Then give the name of a ringer. For almost a decade my favorite ringer was my boyfriend, who dated me and hired me and gave me glowing reviews even after he dumped me.

Give a company you hate as a reference, if you have to.

Let's say you worked for a company for a year and it didn't go well. Maybe your boss was incompetent. Maybe you hated the work. You can spin that in the interview — just talk about what you liked. There's gotta be something you liked. And then, when it comes time for a reference check, you can give the phone number for human resources. As long as it's a big company, HR will be trained to just confirm dates of employment and title. Nothing else, because they don't want to get into legal trouble. And, if you want to make sure the company won't say anything bad, hire a company like Allison & Taylor to find out.

Don’t work for a person who relies on reference checks. They're lame.

Rebecca Thorman has one of the most interesting discussions about references that I've seen in a long time. First, she says that references are outdated because most good jobs require that you know someone to get in the door. And this goes back to the idea that a network matters a lot more than references. If you have someone referring you who knows the hiring manager then that's all the reference you need.

Rebecca also points out, (in an impressive video) that rich people have never needed references. That makes sense to me: Rich kids have always had their parents' friends in high-up places vouching for them. They have a built-in network. So today, social media democratizes networking, and it should, therefore, democratize the reference process. Get a referral for a job and you won't need to go through reference checks either, no matter where you fall on the economic spectrum.

Replace reference checks with networking.

I think references are outdated. I think they are an old-school word for a network, and people who have strong networks and work for people with strong networks don't bother with reference checks because they generally only hire people who come recommended by someone they know.

To understand how the uber-networked handle the reference check, take a look at the venture capital community. Their job is to know everyone, so they don't miss a deal, and to know everyone's weaknesses, so they can mitigate their risk. My favorite VC blog is by Fred Wilson, and today he talks about how he does face-to-face reference checks so that people are more forthcoming.

The first thing I think of is, Would that boyfriend have put himself through a face-to-face reference check for me? But the next thing I think is that no one would ask. You have to be hiring at a very high level to make this worth your time (Fred is hiring CEOs.)

In any case, this is a good example of how networking and references merge. And you don't have to be in the VC community to see that if you are best off if you surround yourself with other people who see this merge coming as well.

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  1. W Church
    W Church says:

    Perhaps this doesn’t apply to the educational system, but every university teaching job I’ve applied for asks for references and they definitely call. They want to talk to places about how well you taught, since student reviews really aren’t a good tell-tale sign.

    But any private business job I’ve had, none have checked the references… I think they just look at them and go, “oh! a doctor! he must be okay.”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a great example of why checking references is lame. Of course the students are better than the reference at knowing if the students liked learning from the teacher.


      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        Not if you take a look at what many, many students write on professorial reviews. In an awful lot of cases, the professor’s job is to pass along knowledge and skills, and the student’s goal is to get a good grade. The result can be whiny complaints about a professor who is “too hard,” when in fact he or she may be excellent, and may be very appreciated by students who want to put in the work. And learning is work.

      • Helen
        Helen says:

        I would really appreciate it if you would stop using “lame” to mean bad or stupid. Physically disabled people are not inherently bad or stupid, and reading language like this really puts me off your otherwise very interesting blog.

    • nadia
      nadia says:

      hah! my husband has a doctorate in sociology. by accident his checks got printed as ‘dr so and so’. Now he never gets asked for an I.D. during those rare instances when he writes a check! And he gets to give medical advice….

      • W Church
        W Church says:

        Actually, I meant more what Kate said. Depending on the school, most students are more likely to diss you if you don’t give them A’s for their lousy work and skipping half your classes. The university system is in a bad state right now where most schools are worried more about profit than quality of students. They want as many students that will pay as possible. We’re in a state where public schools around the country give students A’s for being so-so students because they’ve been told if they try, then they should win. You’ve written about it in your own way about your particular subjects relating to Gen Y. And to go with what you say, most students aren’t A students. So while it sounds like a great communal ideal to have the students grade the teachers – it’s dumb. You dumb down your teachers by having teachers that don’t push the students or discipline them.

        And to Helen about using the word lame – get over it. And don’t argue with me about it because I’ve Argumentative Stress Disorder.

  2. Susan
    Susan says:

    References are lame and don’t really say much about a person. They’re generic and can only really tell a potential employer if you told the truth about working at said company.

  3. Lance Haun
    Lance Haun says:

    At least your advice acknowledges reality and how to deal with it semi-reasonably. That was my problem with Rebecca’s post.

    There’s a reason why you and many other people harp on networking: because so few people do it well! So unless they are part of the small percentage of people that are either rich or well networked, telling people not to worry about reference checks is completely useless.

  4. Mommy, Esq.
    Mommy, Esq. says:

    While I think it is true in corporate America, references are useful in hiring more service oriented people. Your House Manager – did you check her references? We called our nanny’s references before doing an in-person interview and try out.

  5. Alex @ Happiness in this World
    Alex @ Happiness in this World says:

    If when asked for their evaluation of a former employee a reference told the truth (or were legally allowed to tell the truth) reference checks would be invaluable. I work in a large academic medical center and I can’t tell you how often we’ve wanted to rely on even INTERNAL reference checks (people transferring from one department to another) but couldn’t because references rarely felt comfortable (or cared) to be honest. And in retrospect, employees with whom we had problems were always well known to have had problems in their previous are of employment. If we could have only obtained that info honestly from the employee’s references, we could have avoided a lot of service failures at the hands of sub-optimal employees.

    • Marcia
      Marcia says:

      Been on both ends of that situation. If you’ve got an employee who is under performing and wants to leave, you’re happy to get rid of him, and don’t want to stand in his way…

  6. Clare
    Clare says:

    I’ve always provided references (as asked) when I applied for jobs, but to my knowledge, nobody ever followed up on them. I don’t think this is because I networked well, because I didn’t when I was applying for jobs. It might have been luck, as I was applying for jobs in a fast turnover industry, where nobody suitable had applied.

    But being able to interview well was important. If you can make the interviewer like you (by finding points in common, for example) and you come across as someone who’s able to do the job and who’s got the “right” attitude, you’re more likely to appeal on a personal level – so making reference checks perhaps more of a formality than a final hurdle.

  7. Ask a Manager
    Ask a Manager says:

    Personally, as a hiring manager, I don’t rely just on the lists of references a candidate provides — I also ask to talk to managers from specific jobs, if those people aren’t on a candidate’s list. I also require the references be direct supervisors, not HR. I’ve never encountered anyone unwilling to give a detailed reference, and that has included some pretty unflattering references as well — so people should be aware that it’s frequently NOT the case that big companies won’t give detailed references. They do, as long as you speak with the manager, not HR. So candidates should have strategies that take those facts into account.

  8. Millennium Housewife
    Millennium Housewife says:

    Ah I think I spot a great way for me to get rich… Ringer References (has a good ring don’t you think, sorry), call me for a glowing reference whatever you did to get fired. All cheques payable to Millennium Housewife Retirement Fund. I feel that beach house getting closer and closer. MH

  9. Carol Saha
    Carol Saha says:

    My daughter already does what you suggest. She has two or three people that know her well, strengths and weaknesses, that she uses as a reference.

  10. Rosie Reilman
    Rosie Reilman says:

    Yeah I’ve been on 2 interviews and 1 second interview lately and neither place has even asked for references. I have references and don’t have a problem giving them if asked but I think you’re right, most the time it’s just confirming your dates of employment and that isn’t really all that helpful, in my opinion either.

    Sometimes I’ve, in my cover letter, referred the hiring manager to my LinkedIn profile for recommendations of work too.

    What do you think about adding a reference letter in your resume when you submit it? I know a few old school people that I know after being laid off who’ve been asking for reference letters like crazy.

  11. KateNonymous
    KateNonymous says:

    My references were checked for my first job in my current organization (I was a known quantity for the job I have now).

    And this year I hired a student intern. I definitely checked his references. How else was I going to have an idea about his work? He wasn’t part of my network, but his resume was good enough to get him an interview.

  12. Alicia
    Alicia says:

    Today’s job seeker is in some serious denial if they dismiss the importance of references! Of all the people I’ve hired over the past 10 years, every one of them had some form of reconnaissance done on them before an official offer was made. Keep in mind there is the standard reference, then there is the *real* reference that involves probing for the scoop off the record. It happens whether you like to think about it or not. Hiring staff is expensive and a lot like getting married – the divorce is hell. There are so many crazy people out there who interview brilliantly and the interview is their finest day of work. Sure, your former employer can’t disclose your alcohol or drug addition, your crazy spouse, your inability to function in the workplace or chronic health condition, but you can bet any prospective employer is looking for signs you’re a bad hire. And that includes the we-never-had-this-conversation conversation about you.

  13. JenniferP
    JenniferP says:

    Nice article! I would add a couple of things, though:

    1) If you’re in any kind of federal government job, reference checks are mandatory. And if you are handling large amounts of money or confidential information, reference checks and criminal background checks are routine and not going away.

    2) If someone is calling your references, it means the company wants to make you an offer and is doing this one last thing to comply with HR rules or check for any red flags before going forward. It’s paper for the file, “We can prove that we checked this person out.”

    3) If you are submitting references to a prospective employer, take a second and email those people as a courtesy. “Hi, I just had an interview at X company, I hope you don’t mind that I gave your name as a reference.” It gets you back in touch with your network, primes the person to be a ringer for you, and if they like you enough they’ll let you know when they get the call or email.

    • Maus
      Maus says:

      Jennifer is spot on. In fact, if you’re applying for a job in law enforcement or prosecution, the investigator is not only going to contact your references, but he or she is going to ask them for additional contacts who know you — so you have to have solid references and be a good networker. The idea that references are passe is another dangerous generalization. Enjoy P for the entertainment value, but shun her career advice.

  14. Stuart Foster
    Stuart Foster says:

    I hate giving references. I’m 24 and don’t exactly have an overwhelming number of great ones (or really any that could augment me in a professional manner).

    Here’s the thing: Networking, hard work and balls got me to this point. Why the hell do I need to give you a reference? Just seems like another stupid hoop to jump through to entertain HR people.

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      HR people weren’t calling my references. My supervisor was. I’m sure who does the calling depends on the organization–but he knew what he wanted to find out about what I was like to work with. The people who could give him that information were people who already knew.

      I’d be surprised if anyone expects you to have an overwhelming number of references when you’re 24. But if you project that “Why the hell do I need to” attitude when you’re asked, it won’t be the references or lack thereof that keeps you from getting the job.

  15. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    Always thought that reference checks were a waste of time until I started checking out future employees. After all, how hard can it be to line up two-three people that you’ve worked with before that will sing your praises to a future employer. You would be shocked at how many people give names for references that do the “Can I speak with you off the record and tell you that I would never hire this person for the position that you are considering?”Or, the “minute-long-pause” when you ask if the person is dependable or a hard worker. Since the reference check is the last step before the job offer, it is amazing how many people can ace an interview, but not have a few people lined up (even an friend they did some work for free for, etc.) that will vouch for their prior work experience.

  16. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    Stuart at 5:21 makes my point. If you’re that much of a hardworker you should be able to find a couple of people that will vouch for you.

  17. Amy W
    Amy W says:

    The fact that people give ringers as references is exactly why checking them is a waste of time.

    But that doesn’t mean the hiring manager shouldn’t try to find out more about the person they are hiring. S/he should call anybody they think might tell them the truth, whether it’s a direct call to one of the applicant’s former managers or some kind of networking to ferret out a truth-teller.

    Not checking references at all, though, can be just as misguided, and networking is not always relevant. Some positions have to be filled by applicants, especially in situations where the hiring manager is legally required to open the field to anybody and everybody, as is the case with governmental agencies.

  18. Mark Bregman
    Mark Bregman says:

    Love your blog – €“ lots of interesting and provocative ideas. This one on references is not really workable IMHO. Skilled recruiters can break through each of the alternatives you propose, and major employers will always insist on legitimate references. We (executive search firm) ask our candidates for superiors, peers and subordinates for each job, and if they can't provide names, we want to know WHY NOT. We'd get through a ringer in a heartbeat. I haven't done a "name, rank, serial number" reference in 20 years – €“ we get thorough, performance objective based references every time, and I feel it is important to validate what the candidate claims about their history.

  19. IMK
    IMK says:

    I started a new job 3 weeks ago, and I was required to submit references during the interview process (and they were checked, too – my references got back to me on that). And while I agree with you that networking is important, it’s not the only way to get a job. In fact, last two offers that I received did not come through my network, but through good old Sometimes it’s your skills and experience that get the attention. I would not discount references, and people better believe it that references will be required and checked for majority of jobs that they apply for. If you’re such a great employee, you shouldn’t have a problem lining up two people out of your network to vouch for you. When I hired my nanny, I made sure I asked for, and called her reference.

    • IMK
      IMK says:

      I should also add that companies now require at least one reference to be your previous boss, so your best friend would not fly.

  20. Deadhedge
    Deadhedge says:

    My biggest issue with both your post and Rebecca’s post is that I feel that you are just substituting the word “network” for “reference” but otherwise it’s the exact same concept. It’s someone to vouch for you. Maybe a “network” isn’t someone that you worked for like a reference but that’s really just a technicality and hardly seems brazen.

  21. Lonny Eachus
    Lonny Eachus says:

    While I agree with your basic premise — that networking is important — the history of references you gave is a bit fanciful.

    First, giving bad references has never been illegal. The issue is, and always has been, over giving FALSE bad references. And that should surprise nobody, since a false bad reference amounts to slander or libel, which has ALWAYS been illegal. (Well, for the last few hundred years at least.)

    In truth, the reference issue tends to swing like a pendulum. There was a time when I was a child (I used to talk to my father about these things; he was an employer) when employers would routinely give an employee or former employee a bad reference out of revenge for even trying to look for another job.

    At one time I worked for an engineering firm, which gave employees a written review every year. I was upset and somewhat disgruntled, when my reviews consistently were (I felt) unfairly negative. Then, when I became a supervisor, I was told “We don’t give good reviews. We don’t want anything written down that would give headhunters an incentive to hire our good employees away.”


    A spate of lawsuits did in fact end the knee-jerk bad reference trend, but really that was only just. After that, though, some companies overcompensated and many stopped giving references at all. On the other hand, some companies then learned that giving a glowing review and reference to a bad employee could help them get that person hired away.

    We are again in a time when many companies simply do not give references. And that is unfair to the good employees, no matter how you look at it.

  22. Jim C.
    Jim C. says:

    First of all: My last several jobs, including my current one, required references — and they checked them. The jobs were in State government and in academe. They also required college transcripts and proof that I had the degrees I claimed. No references, no transcripts, no job.

    Second, I am horrified at your advising job hunters to lie. Maybe it plays in marketing, although I doubt that very much. In organizations that value honesty, that doesn’t play. “Have a ringer lined up” advises people to have no personal honor.


  23. nadia
    nadia says:

    now that the economy has gone to hell, i have a question regarding references. i find that i am frequently listed as a reference by someone who has not had the courtesy to give me a heads up. how appropriate would it be to say this in response to a call? “i don’t feel comfortable giving a reference to x until i have heard from x first. i feel references are a confidential matter and until i have their permission i will not serve as a reference’. i don’t want to tank someone’s job chances in this economy, but i’m sick of being ambushed at work b/c someone i worked with aeons ago put my name down – probably b/c it was easy to spell…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s true that it’s not cool to not give someone a heads up. But I say just give the reference. Don’t be so uptight about it. It takes two minutes to say, yes I worked with this person. Yes they are competent. How hard is that?

      References are totally stupid. You should spend less time thinking about it.


  24. ben
    ben says:

    I have to say, this post, while not chock-a-block full of untamed heat, is still full of value. The author should not be so hard on this post.

  25. Claire
    Claire says:

    Nice one…but here is a question for Penelope and the audiance. Naive Gen-Yer needs a tip.

    If a former boss offers to serve as a reference, without request, does that mean you should use him or her as one?

    Is a voluntary “I’d be happy to serve as a reference” a mere formality, and one can still get a knife in the back or ‘we-never-had this conversation’ chat? Or is a voluntary reference offer usually sincere?

    • KateNonymous
      KateNonymous says:

      It depends on the boss. Is he or she someone who you would trust? Or have they stabbed people in the back in other ways? It isn’t really any different from evaluating any other relationship. If you don’t trust them, don’t count on them. If you do trust them, why worry about it?

    • the other Amy
      the other Amy says:

      Unless your former boss was an evil backstabber, why would he/she offer to be your reference if they weren’t going to give you a good recomendation? If they didn’t want to sing your praises, they wouldn’t offer in the first place.

  26. melanie gao
    melanie gao says:

    Thanks for the link to Fred’s blog – I love it! I’m subscribed to his RSS feed.

    Which reminds me that I’ve met some of my favorite Internet friends through your blog – Christin K. and Stretchmark Mama and now Fred. I like to think of them as our mutual friends. :)

  27. terry
    terry says:

    References are checked at the majority of Fortune 1000 companies. Since Penelope has not ever worked at one, I cannot see how she (or Rebecca Thorman, for that matter) are “experts” at this. Sheesh, “I am a blogger, that makes me an expert” – NOT.

  28. Matt Cheuvront
    Matt Cheuvront says:

    Well said Penelope – I know that I personally don’t want to work for a company who puts all of their marbles into what my reference check will turn up – not that I have anything to hide or think that any of my past employers have anything bad to say about me, but because I think that I can talk about myself better than anyone else can – you can throw modesty out the window when it comes to branding and selling yourself.

    That being said – there are a few key people that I have a great connection with that will be on my reference list for years to come – people who understand me, know my work ethic, and know what I’m passionate about. The days of the reference check may be old school, but it still happens out there, and it’s important to have people you trust that ‘got your back’ so to speak.

  29. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    Of course, when the business in question deals with sensitive government information and processes, references are the least of your worries.

    None of this advice will apply in the face of a DOD/NSA background check.

  30. The Office Newb
    The Office Newb says:

    An old co-worker of mine who took over my position when I left my last company recently got a call asking for a reference for a former temp we had hired over a year ago. He politely spoke to the recruiter and gave him my name and phone number and told him to call me for a more thorough reference since I was the one who had supervised the temp’s work. My co-worker felt it was important that I
    tell the recruiter about how this temp tried to quit the project on the third day and sexually harassed me. Not a good reference but a very important and truthful account of the temp’s work style.

    Moral of the story: references do get checked (even in “cool” jobs like web design) and they do matter. If you have trouble finding 3 people (co-workers, managers, etc.) willing to vouch for your work, you should probably spend more time improving your job performance and less time looking for other jobs.

  31. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:


    I am not sure how you ever got/ get your work. But in my line of work, my clients often refer me to other prospects, and sometimes even to their competitors (who may have been former colleagues or friends of theirs). That is a ‘reference check’ I do not have to ask for and the new client does not need to ask for. But it is a reference check by any other name.

    Slowly one gets a reputation – this is true both within a company and within the ecosystem that one works in – and then that reputation is your calling card, your ‘reference check’ if you will. It is difficult to modify this reputation once one is stuck with it.

    As for the ‘rich people do not need references’ point, well, I have to disagree with you/ Rachel on that. For nobody checks references the way the ‘truly rich’ do.

    Wealth is not the only calling card they are concerned with (you should come and see in London how many/ few ‘truly rich’ people in the old-fashioned sense fraternise with the new fresh-off-the-yacht residents of Chelski, sorry, Chelsea!) but how that wealth was acquired is also important.

  32. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    your last three posts have been especially great, cathartic even. hopefully the right people (investors, whatever) will see this. it takes time and energy to churn out posts of this caliber. i think your blog is the best example out there of a non-monetized blog that makes money.

  33. Derek Z
    Derek Z says:

    “Reference checks used to matter a lot. Fifty years ago.”
    Actually – 50 years ago the standard was a letter of reference, not a reference “check”. That letter of reference was often carried with much care and is often discovered at the passing of a member of that generation. I'd wager most clearing the estate of a family member from this era has run across one of these meaningful letters alongside other important documents.
    Something to not discount on reference checks is the idea they may not be as "valuable" in the hiring practice as they once were, the value from a recruitment perspective is immense. I can't count how many of these "reference checks" I have had hired over the years.
    If keeping to tradition leads to more information for the hiring decision (always a good thing) and a possible recruit – why part or belittle it?
    Another good, provocative post Penelope!

  34. Alora Chistiakoff
    Alora Chistiakoff says:

    There is also the question of who is involved in the process: I have almost never had a new hiring manager check my references, but I have ALWAYS had recruiting firms check my references before passing me onto the hiring manager.

    And the really GOOD recruiting firms with a very disciplined methodology don’t give me any wiggle room to fudge anything or give them a ringer: they get my boss’ name in each of my last three jobs early in the process, often as part of another question, and will only speak to that person. (I have no idea what would have happened if one of those three people hadn’t been available.)

    References are like resumes: if you know what you’re looking for, and how to find it in your network, and how to ask the questions that get you the answers you care about, then they aren’t of much value. But if you’re going through a totally de-humanized process (especially an outsourced one), they do still matter for out-of-network job applicants.

  35. Sansa
    Sansa says:

    I agree with you about the matter of networking but have a question. My job was recently moved to part time and I’d love to pick up another half-time position. How do you communicate this effectively with your network? Feels like whining/begging/loserish territory.

  36. Bill Prickett
    Bill Prickett says:

    Excellent points, and great discussion. Most of my PR/Communication career has been in the nonprofit arena (sadly, currently unemployed)…and I think all of my past jobs have checked references. And they did a background check, which is probably more valuable, IMHO. (I’d rather know that someone is an ax murderer than that they had tardiness issues at their previous position. But that’s just me.)

    I’ve always put real references on my list. They are people who’ve worked with me and can speak to my abilities. They are NOT paid…but I do know they are my friends, as well as former co-workers. I’ve talked with them PRIOR to adding them to my list and they have agreed. And in the past two positions, I know that some of them were called and asked about my skills, work ethic, etc.

    I do think with sites like LinkedIN, this practice may be antiquated…but at least it does add some personal dimension to a process that has been entirely too automated and impersonal. (I do an entire rant about this on my blog!)

    Bill, in Dallas

  37. le
    le says:

    I never give a referee from my last job as I usually still have it while being recruited into the next one …

    And you just can’t guarantee how they will feel about you going …

    When I reference check I always ask one question – “would you re hire ‘x’ ?”

    Even a micro pause shows that something was off … then you can dig deeper

    When giving referees I follow your rule of finding one with a connection to the hirer – in fact I am applying now and have just found a massive connection between one of my best referees and the organisation I want to work for – sweet :) le

  38. linda Grant
    linda Grant says:

    good advice. I hated my last job (at a big financial services co) which only last 14 months and would trust my former manager to give a good reference so I only give the 800 # to confirm my employment and if I get pushed I give the name of the head of the group because I know she would never say anything to get sued. I know this because when I was laid, she did not even bother to say goodbye, good luck, we’re sorry because HR coached them not to. Pathetic I know.

    That said, I only give references from my previous company, ironically another financial services company.

  39. Roberta Lewis
    Roberta Lewis says:

    The reason reference checks are bunk is exactly because of the latitude given. There’s no way to know if a previous employer is giving “false information”. It’s easy for your boss to decide to mention your tardiness but not your customer commendations or awards. What if they were having a crappy day and the interviewer perceives that as a negative for the job seeker? People are human, and one careless statement can snowball quickly.

    I have a friend in real estate who reported ethics violations at his company. While he says he’s protected from retaliation, I pointed out that he has no idea what his boss and coworkers will say come reference time (the whole office was investigated). I think he shouldn’t use them at all no matter how suspicious it looks, but he pointed out he didn’t exactly want to be known as a whistleblower. So what options does he have other than client references?

  40. fern
    fern says:

    Here’s how i handle references.

    when i leave a company, as in a layoff, i ask my boss or someone else for a WRITTEN reference. Since I’m a writer and they usually are not, i’ve been asked more than once to write my own reference and they they happily sign it! So of course i give myself a glowing review.

    The advantages here are that you get a detailed account of your performance while it’s still fresh in their minds, not 6 months later when you finally get an interview.

    I also hand in copies of my written references at any job interview I get. This is only a positive, plus it could possibly be considered sufficient instead of necessitating a phone call.

  41. Traveler
    Traveler says:

    Whether you like it or not, reference checks DO HAPPEN, all major corporations do them, I know from my background in HR. A better bet than pretending they don’t matter is to make sure yours are good- have a reference checking service like or find out what people are really saying about you. A bad reference CAN and DOES cost people jobs every day.

  42. thatgirlinnewyork
    thatgirlinnewyork says:

    perhaps references are being falling victim to the (ugly, in my opinion) preference for background and credit checks now being widely used. as middle management in marketing, i have seen a huge increase in this, and it makes me uneasy. too many entities have access to our credit information, as it is. it is shoddy and paranoia-inducing–and who says it stands as a good litmus for employment?

    would love everyone’s thoughts on this practice.

    i’m with nadia–“lame” is an apt word, and more widely used to describe injured dogs. using it in this context doesn’t diminish anyone.

  43. Nike Lebron VI
    Nike Lebron VI says:

    hate giving references. I’m 24 and don’t exactly have an overwhelming number of great ones (or really any that could augment me in a professional manner).

  44. Sr. HR Guy
    Sr. HR Guy says:

    Love your blog Penelope and usually agree with them all but I’m afraid that this time it’s my opinion that you missed the target. I’ve been performing reference checks for years and the only reason that a person would use a true ‘ringer’ is if they have something to hide and if they are using a ringer, they’re a liar and lack the type of character of the people you should associate with, let alone hire.

    Nonetheless, I never expect to receive negative feedback from reference actually listed on applications. Who would list the name of someone who hated them or their work? That’s where the skill of performing reference checks come in; getting to the truth, whether it’s good or bad. I’ve had applicants tell me that trying to get a job at our company is like trying to get a job at the CIA and frankly, that’s the way it should be if you’re gambling the success of your company (and your livelihood) on the people you hire… which is everyone; from warehouse worker to CFO.

    Two applicants/reference checks stick out in my mind: something didn’t ring true so I dug and dug and dug. It turns out that one applicant had a criminal history of abusing women and the second had a nasty habit of exposing himself to girls, which they both finally confirmed. Digging into their references and beyond paid off for us. The laws of HR are changing and I always remind the references and previous employers that if they don’t tell me about something violent or criminal, that they can be held liable for negligence via omission if we hire the person and they become a repeat offender.

    In regards to (social) networking, I love it! Get out there and network because as an employer I make certain to check all of the social networking sites and if you think that information is private, then you’re using the wrong search tools. I love interviewing someone who tells me they have no problem with early AM shifts and then find out they usually spend their nights clubbing and they’ve made a comment on their Facebook page which shows how they hate, hate, HATE to get up before 9AM.

    Keep up the great work Penelope, I have to say that 99.9% of your blogs are laser-pointer perfect.

  45. Steve
    Steve says:

    With social media references are passe’ unless it is the federal, state or local government or those positions working with the public. so forgetaboutit.

  46. Carl Junes
    Carl Junes says:

    It all depends. Sometimes they ask reference checks and sometimes not, but if they were really big companies, I really think they will check your references. Reference checks are really important.

  47. Brandon Wong
    Brandon Wong says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Nice article and I have to agree with you I am sick with employee over relying on the reference check. I wonder if the recruiter has the right to ring my previous manager and check on me – without my knowledge and it is not even the referees that I provided to them? I got nothing to hide, but the recruiter could have inform me before he did that, I wonder what he really want to find out?

    Luckily I got good feedback from my previous manager and he is kind enough to ring me back and informed me. Has the recruiter done the wrong thing? I am really not happy with this.

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