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References: 5 reasons to withhold them

In the April 11, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader rejects recruiters who demand references before an interview.

Question

referencesWhat do you think of recruiters demanding the identity of my references  — and demanding to check them — often before there’s even any expression of interest from the hiring manager? Some recruiters get seriously butt-hurt when I won’t instantly hand over references, and claim they won’t submit me otherwise.

I would be nuts to have my references called every time some recruiter decides it would be convenient to check them. I never give references except directly to hiring managers after a successful interview with said hiring managers. Am I wrong?

Nick’s Reply

Your policy is a good one.

Most people view requests for their references as a good sign. They readily turn over a list of names because they assume the request means an employer is seriously interested in interviewing or hiring them. That used to be a reasonable assumption, but not any more.

Many reference requests are unreasonable, unwarranted, and sometimes even fraudulent — and you should know when to politely but firmly decline them. But before you try to decide whether a recruiter’s (or employer’s) request is legitimate, first consider whether whether you’re even being recruited! (See How to screen headhunters.)

Are you being recruited?

Not everyone that solicits you for a job is recruiting you. Learn to distinguish a solicitation from a real recruiting call. In today’s highly automated job market, this is a difficult distinction for most people. (See How HR optimizes rejection of millions of job applicants.) Let me try to explain with an analogy — a solicitation I actually received.

I got a call from a company that wanted to sell me an extended warranty on my car.

“Wow!” I said. “That’s great! This is just what I need! Tell me more.”

For five minutes the caller explained all the benefits. A one-time fee would get me no-cost repair work and parts for virtually anything that might go wrong with my car for the next three years. She even patiently explained the exceptions. I told her I was ready to sign up. “What’s the make, model and year of your car?” she asked, as she started filling out the form for me over the phone.

“It’s a 1959 Chevy Bel Air 4-door,” I said.

She burst out laughing. “Sorry, I can’t sell you an extended warranty for a car that old!” she said.

“Then why did you call me?” I asked.

“I didn’t know what kind of car you have!” she replied, and hung up.

Her call was a blind solicitation. Like most recruiters, that telemarketer had no idea whether I was a potential customer. Nor do most people soliciting you for jobs have any idea whether you’re a realistic candidate. “But that’s why they’re contacting me! To find out!” you might respond.

No, that’s why they’re wasting your time. When a real recruiter contacts you, it’s because she has already spoken to people that know you and recommend you. (And that car warranty telemarketer would know what kind of car I own.) That’s likely how she got your name! She wouldn’t contact you otherwise. She doesn’t need your references until after she has interviewed you in detail, or after her client has interviewed you for a job.

When a “recruiter” asks for your references prior to an interview, politely but firmly decline and end the call, because you’re not being recruited. You’re being solicited by someone who has not done any work to justify contacting you. The “recruiter” wants you and your references to do all the work of proving you’re qualified for the job. In short, that’s not a recruiter calling. It’s a telemarketer. It’s why — two weeks after you’ve submitted all your information and gotten yourself all worked up about “an opportunity” — they never call you back. You’re a 1959 Bel Air. (See Why HR should get out of the hiring business.)

Reference theft

If that extended car warranty telemarketer calls you, would you give her the names of three of your friends, along with their phone numbers and makes and models of their cars?

Of course not. You know she’s going to call them with the same sales pitch she gave you. So, why would you give an unknown “recruiter” the names and contact information of three people who know and respect you?

In today’s dialing-for-dollars recruiting world, three credible referrals are worth a lot of money. Odds are good that the “recruiter” wants nothing from you but three new names. The caller is stealing your references under false pretenses — and even creating competition for the job being pitched to you.

That’s reference theft. It makes you a sucker because you’re doing the recruiter’s job for him. And it earns you the ire of three busy people who used to respect you.

Rules for references

Consider using these rules when anyone asks for your references.

  • Before you disclose anything about yourself, ask what the recruiter already knows about you. A good recruiter will not contact you unless she knows more than is on your online resume or profile. She’s already talked to people who recommend you — or she would not bother recruiting you. A real recruiter does not need to ask you for references. That would be like asking you on a date, but only after requesting a list of your friends and family.
  • Get the recruiter’s own references first: Names and contact information of three managers who have hired through the recruiter. Contact those managers to confirm the recruiter. I’d also ask for three people the recruiter has placed, and I’d talk with them. Does this seem like an awful lot of work to you? Don’t worry — you will rarely have to make those calls, because you will rarely encounter a recruiter who actually has references. But a good recruiter will be happy to comply, because the recruiter already knows you’re a worthy candidate and he’ll do anything reasonable to impress you with his excellent credentials.
  • Don’t invest until an employer invests in you. Remember: An employer or its recruiter contacted you, not the other way around. They want you to do something — to consider a job. They should invest in a face-to-face job interview to demonstrate their sincerity — and to show they’re worth your further consideration. If you’re satisfied the employer is worthy and that you really want the job, then it’s time to provide your references.
  • Find out who is going to contact your references and how. Do you really want a third-party “background checker” to call your references? How about an HR clerk who doesn’t understand the work you do? If it’s a legit reference check, will it be done via phone or e-mail? Or will it be an online form? Which of these reference-checking methods do you think will portray you best? Hand over references only to the hiring manager, and then ask the manager to make those calls personally. (See Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried.)
  • Find out who will have access to your reference report. Nowadays many reference investigations are done by third-party services. That means once your references are checked and filed, the reference-checking firm can sell them again and again to other employers — perhaps without your knowledge. A bad reference or a poorly handled reference can dog you for years, and you’ll never know why you’re being rejected again and again.

Inappropriate reference requests are a tip-off

Most good employers recruit you because someone that knows you recommended you. Real recruiting is not blind solicitation.

Inappropriate requests for your references are actually a good tip-off that you’re not dealing with a real recruiter. Hang up, or delete the e-mail. Real recruiters contact you only after they have checked you out. Respectful employers won’t ask for your references until after there’s mutual interest in taking discussions further. They will treat you deferentially because they’ve already invested a lot of time in you — before they got in touch.

You’ll know a good recruiter and employer from what they say when they contact you. But don’t kid yourself — they’re rare. Your next job will likely come from your own personal contacts, not from a recruiter. Don’t expect those odds to change just because you’d like them to. (Don’t know how to develop personal contacts? Start with this simple suggestion: Meet the right people.)

Protect your references

We haven’t even discussed the problem of letting many recruiters bother the people who volunteered to serve as your references. That’s because we don’t have to. You know better than to permit it. You know not to abuse your references.

Now let’s close on this complaint you made: “Some recruiters get seriously butt-hurt when I won’t instantly hand over references, and claim they won’t submit me otherwise.”

As you’ve already surmised, they have no idea who you are or whether you’re a reasonable candidate. If they’ve got you on the hook, but you won’t sell out your best professional references for a long-shot “opportunity” that you know nothing about — then they’ll drop you. Good.

If you’re having difficulty telling the difference between being solicited and being recruited, try the rules of references above. The first rule alone should usually be sufficient to save your valuable time, and to protect your valuable references.

When do you turn over your references? Have your references ever been abused or misused? Do you respond to recruiters who don’t know the first thing about you?

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34 Comments
  1. I will admit to being astonished by the idea that any recruiter or HR person would ever ask for a reference BEFORE a phone screen/on-site/offer. It is not just inappropriate, it feels like the recruiter is looking for more leads. Maybe they call the reference to learn more, but that too is bizarre. Thankfully, in my industry, I am guessing it is an infrequent occurrence. Just say NO!

  2. There is a trend of having reference checkers also do business development and solicit business. This has happened to me where they get you talking about someone you know well and respect then probe you on your company’s hiring needs. I have to say it’s a better technique than the scores of spam emails I get from tech recruiters flooding my inbox.

  3. Long ago in the distant past when CareerBuilder and Monster.com ruled the job boards I received a on line job solicitation.
    I filled out the online form and happily listed 3 references…
    Mr. R.Buckminster Fuller, Ms. Pocahontas Smith and Mr. John Adams.
    I gave a phone number and address of 3 local cemeteries in my home town of Staten Island.
    I wonder if that information is still floating around the internet job boards :)

    • Good one!

      The only references I’ll provide upfront are “The Three Musketeers”.

    • @Tony: I actually thought about offering a snarky suggestion like that, for dealing with presumptuous recruiters. Decided someone else would do it for me :-). Thanks.

  4. I see this process of “reference checking” no different from the myriad LinkedIn inMails I receive that have some “position” open that even a cursory knowledge of the industry and my credentials would clearly indicate I am NOT qualified for, always ending with the famous final sentence “or if you know of anyone who might be interested, please send their contact info…”

    I LOVE the concept of asking the recruiter for references!! I always get the litany of all the successes but you never know if they are just blowing smoke. Definitely going to add that one to my bag of tricks. I’d bet 80% will tell you to pound sand, as now YOU will have direct access to a hiring manager or prior clients and may now be able to do an end run around the recruiter!

    • @Hank: Remind the recruiter who refuses to provide references that headhunting has always been about trust. And that’s true. When I consider how much personal, private, confidential information I’ve always had about client companies, managers, candidates — it’s astonishing. The mark of a good headhunter — if I say so myself — is the ability to keep confidences. And that’s where trust comes in. If you can’t trust the headhunter, and the employer can’t trust the headhunter, and the headhunter doesn’t trust anyone, well, then there’s no headhunting business.

      It’s all about trust. And I’d remind any recruiter about that.

  5. “I am NOT qualified for, always ending with the famous final sentence “or if you know of anyone who might be interested, please send their contact info…””

    I always wonder if they would give you a significant cut of the action, not your token $500 or whatever, for suggesting someone that eventually gets hired.

  6. Exactly one year ago Transamerica flew me down to Baltimore for an interview. All went well and the HR rep said all they need is to check my references and to “expect an offer by the end of next week.” They called all my references…and I never heard from them again. I eventually sent a nasty letter to the CEO which led to my getting a call from some “talent acquisition” person. Of course, he apologized, saying that in the end they just decided not to hire anybody. Several times I angrily demanded where the heck they got off bothering my references if this job wasn’t for real. He really couldn’t offer any excuse or explanation…long story short, even if it seems like a legitimate company/opportunity, I’m going to demand something in writing via an attorney before handing over references again.

    • For the level of position you speak of one might want to wait for a second interview before even considering handing out reference contact info.

      • I actually had already gone thru two phone screenings, one with HR and one with the hiring team…

  7. “I didn’t know what kind of car you have!”

    Yep! They “didn’t know” enough about you yet “some recruiters get seriously butt-hurt…” when you don’t cave to their demands. Tough luck.

    Sorry folks, but any “recruiter” that calls me is going to have to answer many Qs upfront. They’ll get screened FIRST and I’ll most likely be the one laughing and hanging up.

    “In short, that’s not a recruiter calling. It’s a telemarketer.” Exactly.

    As Nick stated, “Don’t invest until an employer invests in you.”

    YOUR references are like gold – they are invaluable, so treat them that way.

  8. When a recruiter calls me the first thing I do is to ask them what my field is. If they cannot answer, they didn’t do any research and I can tell them goodbye. If they know – and some have – then I have a chat with them and save their number.

    I’ve never been asked for references up front, but I have been asked for contacts for supposed jobs at my company. I’ve asked the recruiter to explain why I would give him the names of competent engineers, whose leaving would hurt us. Real losers, perhaps.
    Never got an answer to this.

  9. Love the analogy with the telemarketer! I don’t provide the names and contact info. for my references until there is an offer on the table and we’re in the final stages of hiring. I’m not about to burn my references, and I can’t understand why anyone would want my references BEFORE they’ve decided to interview me.

    Also love the advice to turn the tables on the telemarketers–ask them for THEIR references.

  10. As usual Nick is incredibly thorough. Clip and save this for ready archive & attributable use. In my 24+ years working one-on-one with more than 4,000 professional men & women 1) Never seen anything comparable, 2) So robust many will determine it’s too hard work to implement…BIG MISTAKE.

    Ignore any element at your peril. NOTE: Independent recruiters, especially many “contingency” ones, are not licensed, bonded, certified not to mention qualified. Vet your caller and call back if she checks out. Ditch the grief. Telemarketers in disguise. Nick nails this, believe me (after you vet me too).

  11. Can a recruiter’s skill and obvious good faith trump timing? In this case, the offer was not on the table. I think it was after one interview, when my supervisor asked me if I’d provide a reference for her to a recruiter. I knew my supervisor was looking for another job and knew why. After making an appointment for a 30-45 minute conversation, the recruiter called. She specifically wanted a reference from someone who reported to my boss. She asked questions like “Since you and your supervisor have different areas of expertise, how do you know she’s good at what she does? How did she determine your performance reviews?” “What was your supervisor’s relationship like with her supervisor?” “Did you have different approaches to problem solving?” “How did you and she handle disagreements between you?” The conversation lasted the whole 45 minutes. I’ve never seen reference checking so well used. I don’t know how the process was conducted but my boss was a person immediately impressive. My boss got the job as CFO, and in a few years was promoted to COO. She remains there 13 years later.

    • @Addie: Thanks for that story! We talk so much about inept recruiters that it’s great to see how a good one works. The difference between the recruiter who spoke with you about your supervisor and most recruiters is that she clearly had discussed the position at length with her client – the employer. She understood what the issues were and she knew exactly what to look for in a candidate. Thanks again!

    • How common are references using underlings? I’ve never heard of this. But always wondered why this wasn’t SOP for those supervising others.

      • @Stevie: I love references from underlings and co-workers. You can learn a lot from these folks. I think it’s a good idea to include one or two when an employer asks for references.

  12. Due to the simple fact that basic manners and credibility have disappeared from those involved in the HR industry, I do not give my references without having completed an interview with the hiring manager. My references do not enjoy being abused any more than I do, thus my approach for the last 15 years. Additionally, I am also making the decision whether I want anything to do with this organization via my interaction with the manager. Hiring is a bilateral contract. Honest :)

  13. I like chicken

  14. Interesting article. However doesn’t talk about background check which could be different from reference checks. Our company may ask the candidate to sign off on a form which allows us to run a background check on candidates before they come to our office to perform final round of interviews given we’re a privately funded privately owned company.

    • @Rick: Good point, though some companies are a bit loosey-goosey about the line between reference and background checks. The tip-off is the waiver/permission form – that’s usually a background check. I like that your company does the background before final interviews. That’s a healthy way to do it, before the offer stage.

      What I don’t like is companies that do backgrounds after they make a verbal offer. Even when the company makes it clear the offer is contingent on the background check (and they don’t always make it clear), candidates often misread this as a bona fide offer, quit their old job, and sometimes wind up on the street when the check isn’t satisfactory. To make matters worse, the new employer won’t always disclose what it found.

  15. The application software that school districts in Central Texas use (I don’t know about the rest of the state) require 3 references just to apply, and as soon as you hit “submit,” it generates emails to all your references. I found that out the hard way, when my current boss was disappointed to learn I was looking for a new position. (And he put a lot of effort into his reference for me.) There is apparently a vaguely worded disclosure on the page that I misinterpreted as legalese. The second time I applied to a Central TX school district I listed my references but listed my own email addresses. I don’t know if that’s why I didn’t get called back for that one, but someone needs to be strung up.

    • @Christy: Forcing a reference list from someone just so they can APPLY is ridiculous. Because once you’ve provided the references, the reasonable assumption is that it’s okay to contact them. That’s why I think it’s worth going to the wall to withhold them. How do you do that if refusal means you can’t even apply? Well, that’s when you have to take it to a higher authority and question the legality or legitimacy of the reference policy.

      • After the interview process was over (and I wasn’t selected), I emailed the director of HR and a school board member about the unprofessionalism and inappropriateness of flinging out requests for recommendations for someone you may not even consider for the job. At the time I didn’t realize it was common practice among all the school districts. Bureaucracy!!

        • @Christy and @Nick: Yes, it IS nuts. Unfortunately, it seems to be more and more common. I talked with a hiring manager, who, despite having my résumé, told me that I was required to fill out the application (online) in order to go further. I thought he was interested, so I started to fill it out, and when I got to the section for references, there was no way for me to proceed until I had typed in names, addresses, numbers, email addresses, and where they work. I called the hiring manager, who fobbed me off on HR, saying it was “government regulations” (I know better–there are no government regulations that require applicants to list references), and even when I explained that I cherish my references/don’t want to burn them, that they’re busy people, etc., HR refused to budge, and the hiring manager caved to HR. So I walked away since there was no offer on the table. A few weeks ago the hiring manager called me back, asking if I was still interested in going forward (next interview) and I said “yes, but…” reiterating my concern re my references. He started sucking air, complained that there’s no good help out there and that everyone has to provide their references up front because of “government regulations”. I explained that there are no government regulations, no employment laws that require this, so it is company policy, not a legal matter. I think blaming “government regulations” is a cop-out, an easy way not to have to take responsibility for your employer’s nutty hiring process. I sent an email to the CEO, as per Nick’s Q&A last week, summed up my experiences with the company, and why I would not be continuing with the process. I haven’t received a reply, and at this point, don’t expect one. I am assuming that the CEO either approves of HR’s “requirements” or doesn’t care. But that job has been open, and scuttlebutt when I was interviewing was that they had a hard time finding the right person to fill it. I’m happy to provide my references after there is an offer on the table. This should be the final step (or nearly the last step) in the hiring process, not close to the first! Maybe others don’t want to burn their references either.

          • “So I walked away since there was no offer on the table.”

            I “walk away” the instant I smell a run-around brewing – no time for that drama.

            Sounds like an uninterested and/or clueless CEO, a hiring manager that either is incompetent or, worse yet, agrees with lying to candidates about “mandatory” references for the online app and yet another HR department that controls the entire hiring process AND has the hiring manager on a short leash all the while screaming “talent shortage” – classic!

            Wonder what it would be like to work there? Not!

          • Agree 100%

            The other one that irks me is some applications want you to submit SS# AND a detailed salary history up front when applying – this tends to be smaller outfits that no one has ever heard of so I usually run away faster than you can say “identity theft.”

            I’ve had folks tell me that this is “government standard” or “industry standard” which is complete horse crap – I’ve interviewed for jobs which require clearance for large DoD contractors as well as have friends on the inside – and they do not require this type of info up front unless there is some sort of interest to interview/offer a job and even then they don’t require all of it.

          • Could this possibly be a legit EEOC complaint? Given that they are clearly lying about a requirement, sort of like an illegal question?

            Private sector applicant tracking systems are doing this more too, requiring at least three references to move forward. Which is why I love the bogus references provided by Tony.

        • @Christy: “I didn’t realize it was common practice among all the school districts. Bureaucracy!!”

          Common practice doesn’t mean it’s legal or legitimate. As one who’s had many run-ins with corrupt school boards, I suggest digging into the law a bit. Don’t assume a school board is behaving legally. A few years ago I took my local school board to the county prosecutor’s office because it violated transparency laws. The prosecutor issued sanctions publicly against the board. A bit of public shame can work wonders.

  16. References on the application is another problem when the manager is in possession of the application, other than the HR. It happened to me once, when I filled out the application online and gave the hard copy of my resume to the senior manager who then passed it in private to the HR Department. All was well and I got the interview and eventually, a job.

    On my first day, the assistant manager came to me with the paperwork, stating that they need them for their file, when I immediately questioned as to why I need to fill the application again.

    It was fishy and I passed my concern to a HR rep about the duplicative need. I found out that the ass’t mgr made a habit of calling the references to cull more information for her own personal use on employees, outside of the HR interview parameters. The HR rep called into the method of the ass’t mgr and had auditors swoop into the manager’s office to audit every employee’s personal folders. They now must follow strict document guidelines.

    Keep in mind that there are some unscrupulous managers who employ this method.

    • @JM: That’s an interesting spin on misuse of references. Thanks for sharing it, and kudos for pressing it at your company.

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