Will My References Help Me Or Hurt Me?

By Gerald Walsh ©

While some people downplay the value of reference checking, most employers still check them. Knowing this, there are steps you can take to ensure your references work in your favour, not against you. Here are a few guidelines to follow:

Choose your references wisely.

You should only provide professional references – those individuals who can attest to your past work experience. They are the ones who are most knowledgeable of your work habits, interpersonal qualities and skill levels. Personal references, such as friends or relatives, provide no value to the employer.

Make sure your references will say good things about you.

While this may seem obvious to some, you cannot assume everyone will speak glowingly of you. One way to find out is to ask them, “If Company X calls you, what will you say about me?”

Listen carefully and coach your references if necessary. I am not saying that you should put words in their mouths. But you might be able to craft how they will speak about you, or refresh their memory about past accomplishments of yours’ they may have forgotten about.

Do not provide the names of your references in advance.

Unless the job posting states this specifically, you should not include the names of your references when applying for the job. You don’t want an employer contacting your references before you even know if you really want the job. This could end up being embarrassing for you, particularly if your references are connected with your current employer.

Most employers will ask for them later – if they’re interested in you.

Provide details about the job to your referees.

Once the potential employer asks for references, you can assume they will be checking them. You should immediately contact your referees to tell them about the job you’ve applied for. Let them know about the company, its issues, what the job involves, and its responsibilities.

You should also let them know what the company is looking for in prospective candidates, and why the job appeals to you. Sending them a copy of the job posting helps for sure. This information will guide their answers a lot.

Give them a list of possible questions they might be asked.

Of course, there is no guarantee the employer will ask these questions but if you provide samples, your references will have time to think about how your past experience aligns with this job.

Remember, for the most part, the reference questions will be driven from the job description or advertisement (which is why you should send a copy of the posting) and in most cases are similar to the questions you were asked in the job interview.

One final thought. Some employers want to speak to your current employer as part of the reference checking process. On one hand, this is understandable especially if you have been with your current employer for a long time and have no other references who can attest to your recent experience. However, it can also be problematic, for obvious reasons.

One effective way to handle this request is to tell the employer you are fine with this step but only after terms of employment have been nailed down. You can suggest that they make an offer “subject to a satisfactory reference from your current employer.” Yes, there is still a small chance your employer will speak negatively about you and you lose the offer, but I have never seen this happen.


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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @@Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn.