When Jobs Ask For References – Do’s and Don’ts

Things are getting serious. You’ve done the song and dance, vetted accordingly, and have reached the turning point. You look good, feel good and smell good (right?). You’re on the verge of landing that dream job, but the final test is on the horizon. The potential employer asks you for professional testimonials. What do you do when jobs ask for references?

Firstly, don’t panic. You’ve got this.

The job application process can be excruciatingly stressful. But with the right tips and preparation, you can exude that confidence and breathe easily.

Do Jobs Actually Use References?

We’ve all heard it from someone. Jobs don’t actually check the references you provide. It’s a myth to scare you. Yadda yadda.

First of all, that someone is usually unemployed. Second of all, that claim is surprisingly false.

While it may seem like no one has ever reached out to your former employers or educators, the numbers are high. In fact, a 2019 survey by SHRM noted that 87% of potential employers do reference checks as part of the hiring process.

Simply put, that’s too high to ignore.

Jobs that require professional backgrounds or experience will more than likely check up on your former work. They want to make sure that you’re an exceptional candidate and honest about your past. Overall, it is their right to check that you are not wasting their time and resources. So, be prepared.

What References are Jobs Looking For?

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. When a Human Resources (HR) department asks you to provide references, what exactly are they looking for? 

A quick and fast rule is as follows. Here are the most important reference types in order.

  1. Current employer or supervisor.
  2. Former employers or supervisors.
  3. Current clients (if the job includes having clients).
  4. Former peers or clients.
  5. Professors or trainers (if you are freshly out of school or it’s extremely applicable).
  6. Personal references and friends.

First and foremost, let’s get this out of the way. Friends are not the way to go when jobs ask for references. If you are down to the wire and can’t scrape together enough professional backing to fill out the list, then it’s doable, but it doesn’t look great. Most jobs that require references are looking for a great level of experience in the field. If you don’t have enough references to reach that, you’re probably not experienced enough. This does not mean that you shouldn’t apply (always reach for the stars) and use friends if you must, but know it’s not the best, or even fifth-best, option.

Furthermore, never ask a friend to act as a former employer. Recruiters have experience in their work, whether a temp agency, direct hire company, or just an HR rep. They can see right through it. Bad idea. 

Finally, never include family. There are probably some cases where using a family member to testify for you is applicable, but it is extremely rare. You want to avoid providing biased parties. You also want to avoid the idea of nepotism. 

What Do They Want to Know?

The biggest tip about references, or all of the application process, is to tailor it towards the job. If the job is for an IT position, you want your references and resume to apply to that field. Sometimes this isn’t entirely possible, sure, but if you have a plethora of resources and don’t know which to choose from, make sure it fits the bill.

When tailoring which references to pick for a job, it helps to know exactly what jobs ask your former employers. Unfortunately, we are not psychics. If I could tell you all of the questions an employer will ask specifically, I would be in Cabo with my toes in the sand. A billionaire, if you will.

Ultimately, a potential employer asks your references questions about your work ethic and previous experience. It’s not as personal as you may imagine or fear. They want to know how successful you were at your last job. How good of an employee you were. How responsible you are. Overall, they just want to hear a positive opinion from your former bosses. Pick references that you know will have glowing reviews about you. If they are within the same field as the new job, list them without question.

Give someone a heads-up before you put them on an application. This can help them be prepared to help you look like the shining star you are. Ask the resource for permission. Providing them with a brief job description of the potential gig can help them help you, too.

Be sure to reach out and thank your references after the process. You will probably want to use them again. Don’t burn bridges by being ungrateful.

Specifics Are Key

Recruiters look for specific examples when speaking to your listed names. Think about it. If your former employer only says colloquial comments without specifics, it looks like they’re just trying to help you, not actually vouch for you.

Pick references that you know will have good things to say about you. Specific compliments. Sure, some professionals may avoid specifics for legal reasons, but this is noticeable and noted. As stated, recruiters are good. They can tell when compliments are organic or forced.

Just keep in mind which former employers or supervisors will have actual great things to note about you.

Pick Impressive Professionals

If you have a plethora of references to choose from that will all embellish your work history with positives, choose the ones that have the most impressive titles.

It may sound superficial, but it certainly helps.

For example, if you have two past employer references and one is a CEO while the other is a manager, the CEO obviously holds a bit more weight. They should be listed before the manager.

While the references all matter, the more impressive ones catch the eyes of the hirers. Much like putting great jobs on your resume, great references induce those ‘wow’ moments for the employer. That’s who’s backing them?

Concerned About What a Reference Will Say?

when jobs ask for references - call
Don’t use a reference if you’re iffy about their opinion of you as a worker.

It’s impossible to break down every candidate’s scenario, so let’s keep it uncomplicated. If you are worried that a reference will have negative things to say about them, don’t use them. It’s that easy.

If you’re strapped on your number of references and your only option is one you’re not entirely positive about, reach out to them beforehand. If you ask them if you can list them, you may be able to feel a general idea of what they think about you. If they seem lackadaisical about being a reference, don’t use them.

You’re better off having fewer than the required references than having any bad ones.

When Jobs Ask for References but You Have None

Let’s be real. Sometimes things can be difficult. It is possible that despite being a fantastic worker, you just do not have enough references to fill out an application. Maybe you’ve been at one job for a long time (which is actually a plus in some ways).

Break it down like the list provided earlier.

If you don’t have enough employers or supervisors, move on to clients or former peers. If you don’t have enough of those, think about educators or people you have volunteered with. If you severely lack any references, think about volunteering or reaching out to professionals you know. You can always build up your report with others.

We all have to start somewhere. Always apply, even if you can’t fill out the full reference requirement with glowing reviews. Sometimes your resume will speak for itself.

What’s Next?

Asking for references is usually one of the last steps in the application process. If you have gotten this far, you are in good shape for the position. But remember, asking for references does not mean you scored the job already. The company has to contact them to make sure you’re the right candidate.

If you have tailored the right people to contact, asked them for permission, and have an honest and hardworking background, you can rest assured. It is now time to let the chips fall where they may. It’s out of your hands. Relax and let your past speak for itself.

You will probably not hear from your listed employers about whether or not they spoke to the hiring job. People are busy. This is congruent with why people think references aren’t actually contacted. An employer rarely tells you they called. A reference probably won’t tell you they received a call. It’s just not a necessary action. Do not stress if you do not hear from your references. This does not mean things have gone sour.

After all, if you have been an exceptional worker and have a great resume, you should not worry. But always remember, when jobs ask for references, they will probably use them.

Finally, here are a list of reference questions employers ask.

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