A reader wonders whether it’s right that employers demand references before the employer even talks to the candidate, in the November 3, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.


referencesAfter I submitted my resume, I was asked to do on-demand video for eight questions. I had no problem on this part, then luckily I made it to the second part, an online interview. They confirmed my interview but wanted five references within 24 hours, and this needs to be done before the interview. The references will be sent a link to an automated survey, the system will gather their responses, and I will be given a rating based on their responses. The company said background and reference checks are very important and I agree with this. However, I do not want to burden my references before my interview with impersonal forms to fill out, especially because the job opportunity is uncertain. I would like to know how you feel about this process. Do you think I can tell them that I would rather provide references after they have provided a real human to interview me first?

Nick’s Reply

Has anyone from the company spoken with you on the phone? If yes, who, for how long and about what?

Reader’s Answer

I received all communications via e-mail and have not spoken to anyone on the phone. The e-mails are from a third-party HR agency and the company. My video interview is scheduled 10 days from now with 4 people. This is a healthcare company with operations in several states, and the position is a Senior Finance Manager. I really appreciate your feedback and response.

Nick’s Reply

Thanks for the additional information. It reveals a lot. You must use your own judgment on this – it’s your “opportunity” on the line, not mine. But here are my thoughts.

Don’t use up your references

A company that does not give you the courtesy of at least a personal phone call does not deserve access to your references – especially when it’s all automated and handled via a third party. It’s unprofessional, rude and ridiculous.

I agree with you that such an uncommitted employer could be an unreasonable bother to your references. It could also compromise your references’ willingness to help you when you really need them. Good references can get “used up.”

Ridiculous demands

Your preliminary interview was automated via video. Even the request to do it was automated. So was the request for references. So far, there’s apparently been no human time spent on their end.

Now they will automate requests to five people for reference checks. Then they will automate the reference checks using online surveys. (By the way — five references is two too many for any employer to demand.) Finally, it appears the review and scoring of your auto-gathered references will be handled by more automation.

At this point, you and five other people will have devoted hours of time for the convenience of the employer. The employer may have devoted a few minutes of effort, if that. That’s ridiculous.

Judge the employer’s commitment

This is a lot to demand of a job seeker without as much as a phone call from the employer to demonstrate respect and real interest.

You and your references are not being judged, but processed. Worse, you may be processed by a third party that is not the employer.

I judge an employer’s sincerity and integrity by the level of commitment they make to job applicants. This employer expects personal commitment from you and your references. But I don’t see any corresponding personal commitment from them. I see no sign of sincerity or integrity. You could invest your personal time on all the automated tasks they set before you and receive an automated rejection with no explanation and without any real opportunity to win the job.

That’s unacceptable. More important, it signals that you are disposable.

Reference risks

My added concern is that the introduction of a third-party HR firm and an unknown fourth party (the company that makes the software) creates more risks. You may have no idea how your data will be stored and used.

  • Your references and your score may be re-used without your approval by other employers you have not yet applied to, but who buy reference reports from the same third-party HR firm. You could thus get rejected instantly by other employers without even providing references — and never know why.
  • People that serve as your references could be subjected to requests you don’t know about. It’s a common trick for a recruiter to request references in advance, then to solicit the references for the same or other jobs. (Yes, you could be competing with your references.)
  • Sometimes the goal is not to interview you; it’s to use you to gain entry to more senior-level contacts who are solicited as clients.

I’m not saying such shenanigans will happen. But I believe the more automated the hiring process is, and the more parties are involved, the more likely abuse is to occur.

Protect yourself and your references

I would not agree to the employer using automated means or third parties to check your references. Ask that an exception be made. “I respect my references and I don’t want them bothered with impersonal surveys. Would you please contact my references personally and actually speak with them?”

Whether you get that concession or agree to automated reference checking, data gathering and third-party processing, and if you agree to automated video interviews, ask for full disclosure in writing.

  • Who will handle your video interview and personal data about you and your references?
  • Where will it be stored?
  • Who can see it?
  • How long will they keep it?
  • Will your data be shared or sold?
  • If someone violates the agreement, what penalty will they incur?

Don’t sign waivers or permissions unless you really understand what they mean. Check the reputations of any parties involved.

This might all be on the up and up, and it may be worth your time. You are the best judge about how real this opportunity is. But I have little respect or trust for any employer that asks so much of a candidate before it puts its own real, human skin in the game.

What you can do

I would politely call a time-out. Thank them for their interest and confirm your interest in the job. Then ask to speak briefly with the hiring manager via phone before you provide highly personal information like references, or invest further time in interviews.

Ask the manager to briefly describe why they think you’re a good candidate. Then judge the manager’s level of interest and decide whether this is really an opportunity. A committed manager will have good answers and demonstrate enthusiasm about meeting you for a full interview, and will be content to wait until afterwards to personally speak with your references.

Do what you think is best, but please be careful about how you risk your references.

At what point do you provide references? How many? When do employers normally request them? Has a recruiter ever abused your references? What do you think of third-party reference checkers?

: :

  1. I’ve heard of investment bank junior analyst / intern positions being filled with these automated processes and HireVue one-way “interviews” (candidate records themselves answering questions and an all-powerful algorithm weeds out the ones who are not articulate enough, diverse enough, excited and amazed enough to be given the opportunity etc.

    This might work when there are thousands of top-talent applicants who all want to work for you and nobody cares if candidate number 3577886 finds the process dehumanizing and drops out.
    Not such a great idea when it comes to filling senior positions that could have a major impact on your finances and operations.

    A company that recruits this way for a Senior Finance Manager role (experienced hire, small pool of candidates, high stakes) must consider itself too big to fail or else is planting the seeds of its own destruction, since following the processe and procedures laid out by HR is more important than sourcing the right candidates and making a good hire for competitive advantage.

    • @G.D: “following the processe and procedures laid out by HR is more important than sourcing the right candidates and making a good hire for competitive advantage”

      I think that’s the problem, and I’ll betcha some key people upstairs have no idea what damage HR is doing in the company’s professional community. It’s not just the loss of good hires; it’s the word on the street that damages the company’s rep and makes it even harder to staff up properly.

  2. I don’t understand why companies would automate references this way. What’s to stop a candidate making up 5 fake references and answering the questions themselves? Anybody can grab several free personal email addresses today. Sure, you could track by IP and MAC addresses, but there are ways around that. Spoof your MAC address, log onto to various free hot spots (or use an anonymizing service), boom, you’ve got 5 people giving glowing reviews.

    Now, calling up 5 actual humans and talking with them…..well, yeah, the company in question obviously doesn’t have time to sully itself interacting with talking meatbags.

    • @Chris: Gee, maybe the automated reference-checking service outsources reference checks on your fake references? There’s plenty of $$ to go around the outsourcing industry…

      “What? That’s our fault in HR? Never heard of it.”

    • I’ve even heard of services that will provide phone references for folks.

  3. Outsource IT. Outsource payroll. Outsource maintenance. Now it seems they’ve outsourced HR (or much of it). What’s next?

  4. > By the way — five references is two too many for any employer to demand.

    I know of one nearby employer whose policy is to ask applicants to supply four references who are each asked to write letters of recommendation.

    • @Rick: Buh-bye references…!

      • I’ve only applied there once and had to provide my cherished references. Do I dare to apply again (some years after the first time). As the 8 Ball says: “Outlook not good”

    • This is actually pretty common in government jobs. My last job was in the government and they required that I give 3 references and each give feedback before a solid offer was extended. Bureaucracy run amok.

  5. I will never, and I mean ‘never’ participate in third-party, AI interviews nor would I subject my references to them. This is just one more illustration of how hiring is utterly broken. Sure, there are people who get jobs this way, but what are the percentages?

    We all know how AI works. We’ve all been subjected to it when contacting companies to ask a question or solve a problem. Do you really want that same system to find you a job?

    There is no substitute for putting yourself out there and meeting people.

  6. He didn’t say what kind of company the 3rd Party HR company was…if it has a recruiting arm, my 1st thought was I was seeing a way to invade someone’s network for choice leads.

    I’m a big believer in references…I’m a reference myself and just was. Many hiring managers aren’t interested..believing the reference of course will just say nice things..else why is their opinion being offered?

    But I, me not a 3rd party, want to talk with references. To me reference calls are extensions of my interviews, from which you learn a lot about a person, the reference & vs versa. A conversation. In most cases they provided positive info a candidate overlooked, forgot, or even didn’t see in themselves. And they are frank. they are also time consuming so I don’t do that until I’ve met with the applicant & feel it’s mutually beneficial if I talk with people that known him/her. I liked talking with a supervisor, a client or customer (that can be internal) a subordinate if the person is a manager or lead, and peers…I didn’t always get all of them but at least 3.

    Surveys? a scoring formula? 5 references..why not 10? the writer’s learned everything he/she needs to know about the company. Move on. If interviewed, don’t be surprised to find that the company/HR has a scoring formula for that too. And perhaps one for their appraisal system. and of course one in deciding termination.

    What a waste of of an opportunity to really get to know someone.

    and yes a great example of why one protects their network. And an example of a company shooting themselves in the foot from an image standpoint. What I mean by that is candidates have told me their references reported back to them how impressed they were that a company took the time to talk with them beyond some Q&A quiz. Every time that dumbass company sends out a survey they are saying a lot about themselves…and it’s not a positive message.

    • “He didn’t say what kind of company the 3rd Party HR company was…if it has a recruiting arm, my 1st thought was I was seeing a way to invade someone’s network for choice leads.”


      If you are being asked to provide references before an offer is extended, you are being asked to offer up sales leads. They will get petitioned for positions or be asked for resumes.

      A reference given before an offer is extended is a reference that’s you’re submitting to a Sign-a-Friend program.

      • “You’re being asked to offer sales leads”. Drum roll for the truth!
        Back in late 2010, I was laid off in a downsizing after a buyout. I spent all of 2011 (save for a part-time gig) job hunting. One dubious manager at a company told me during an interview (I’d dropped a paper resume off there total old school) “for this Interviewing process to proceed further you have to provide us with 10 verifiable sales leads”. I called him out on it, knowing full well the interview had gone south. I was ghosted, but was told of his concerns for my being “too old” for the job that paid a low-ball salary (I was 53 then).What was really egregious was they were secretly interviewing for the position having an incumbent already in said position. He pointed at the young guy. He was eating his lunch at his desk, and had a picture on his desk of his wife and 3 small children. Wow! I didn’t know the guy, or know why he was being terminated, and the manager was very vague on giving legit reasons that warranted termination.

    • @Don: I like to get “references” on a candidate I’m serious about before and after I meet with them. When I can, I’ll do a preliminary reference check by personally calling the reference, asking a few questions that I think will help me do a better assessment during the interview. I’ll keep this brief and ask the reference if it would be okay to follow up with them later. No one has ever said no. That prelim gives me very good insights. It helps the best candidates most because the references often tell anecdotes or share information that reveal a stand-out candidate.

  7. Dear Original Poster, Dear Reader, and Dear Anyone at any level who is looking for any job from janitor to job development specialist to judge (there are at least 12,000 job titles in the US):

    1) Make (or save) a copy of this Q&A.

    2) For the next 7 days, read this article at least once a day.

    3) Then, until you find employment, read it at least once a week.

    4) Finally, keep it on file, and the next time you’re seeking employment (and there will be a next time) repeat steps 2) and 3) and do this until you retire.

  8. Several questions come to mind that can have an influence on the action this person should take.
    #1. Who/How did this individual find out about this position?
    #2. A title (“Senior”) is quite meaningless unless there is a job description that details the duties and responsibilities of said “senior” position. This person should request, if not already supplied, the detailed job duties.
    #3. Research the standing this healthcare company has within the professional community. It may be a company riff with issues pertaining to how they treat employees.
    Healthcare companies have a reputation of not being the best to work for in many capacities; this may be one. How they are going about selecting a person for a “senior” position speaks volumes to me this company really isn’t one to align with for any reason. I suggest more research into the company prior to kowtowing to their highly impersonal demands. Don’t let emotions over-ride common sense; the price you pay probably is higher than you realize. Proper research doesn’t have to be lengthy in these situations. Use the Internet plus contacts with people affiliated with the industry can reveal many things about a prospective employer. The research in this case can take a mere couple of hours. With conditions in the marketplace being what they are, it’s necessary to research all prospective employers prior to supplying them personal information, references, or even accepting a position.

  9. There is so much hiring BS going on.

    I had an interview with a well known Seattle company that was a total joke. The job was for a Senior IT Help Desk Tech. My interviewer had worked in the field for 2 years and had worked only 2 months for this company. He was an entry level tech.

    Users were supposed to resolve their own issues and if they could not then they had to make an appointment to bring in theit computer. When he told me that the support level was 1 tech for 1200 users it confirmed these people were clueless about IT support.

  10. This made me so sad. Humans treating job seekers this way. Talentless.

  11. This company deserves the type of talent they attract, which is probably not very good. Just look at the people they have running HR.

    Even bad employers would not waste time doing reference checks on a candidate they are not considering. Shows the level of stupidity at this organization. This is a big red flag to stay away.

    On reference checks in general, I wonder if any company thinks we are stupid enough to give them names of people who don’t like us. If you can’t tell if someone is a good candidate in the interview, then you don’t belong in a position to hire someone.

    • Tom, yes at times applicants do provide names of references who offer, not just bad, but horrible
      feedback. Here’s a quote “I can’t believe he used me as a reference!” followed by a rant of why the applicant sucks.
      There’s a very basic step some applicants don’t heed. Ask the reference if they’ll be a
      reference. They just use their names, and set up a reference to be blindsided And/Or don’t keep them in the loop and give them a heads up that they submitted their name as a reference and will get a call. For what company & what job.

      I’ve served as a reference a # of times. I’ll ask the person to give me the details, the resume they sent in, and then I’ll tell them what I’ll say. If they don’t care for what I’ll say they don’t use my name.

      As a recruiter, I only ask for references after an applicant shows potential & I want to move them further toward the hiring manager, but before a hiring manager(s) interviews them. The reference check(s) usually confirm our take or help prioritize, when there are more than one contender.

      Of course they’ve submitted someone who they believe will have their back. That’s a given. That’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for more info, better insights on a fit that perhaps the applicant doesn’t see themselves. A reference can provide real examples of why the applicant is a good hire, things the applicant missed in a resume, in screenings, cover letters and interviews, or had an overabundance of humility.

      In my experience Hiring Managers seldom talk to references, for reasons you noted. They expect them to say nice things and as such that’s a waste of time. If I think it will help I’ll encourage them to do so & facilitate it and sit in, as I’ve already met/talked with the reference. In my experience good references don’t BS, nor exaggerate or lie. They are frank and objective.

      And I hammer home to the hiring manager that the discussions are confidential, certainly not to be shared with the applicant. A good reference will contact the applicant after they’ve talked with us and give them their take.

      We owe a reference respect for their confidentiality. What I don’t want is the applicant to make wrong assumptions about how the reference impacted their chances. i.e. be the bad guy or fall guy for a non offer, which may not be the case. It’s usually the opposite.. What I definitely don’t want is a hiring manager to blurt out “Your reference said you…or worse your reference Joe said.

      It works much better for all concerned if references are contacted, that it be out of the way before the hiring manager interviews. As part of the prescreening. So that if there’s a bad guy for not moving to the interview, it’s me, not the hiring manager, that’s part of the job.

      If a hiring manager does all of it, a good one knows all of this, with good results.

      • @Don:

        “It works much better for all concerned if references are contacted, that it be out of the way before the hiring manager interviews. As part of the prescreening. So that if there’s a bad guy for not moving to the interview, it’s me, not the hiring manager, that’s part of the job.”

        I agree. That’s how it often worked before employers solicited thousands of applicants online. The employer or the headhunter would contact references prior to interviews to gain a better understanding of the candidate. It was part of the screening.

        But now, because HR is faced with so many applicants for a job (it’s own doing, or maybe undoing), that kind of reference checking is impossible. Too many candidates! Too many references to check! So HR’s “solution” is to put the burden on the candidates and their references — long before the candidate is even deemed viable. Automating reference checks does not solve the problem of too much “garbage in.” It just creates more questionable information.

        It’s not fair or reasonable to make candidates run around pleading with references to go online to fill out surveys, sometimes for dozens of “job opportunities.” Wasting references’ time because employers recruit haphazardly is wrong.

        This has spawned a whole new industry: reference checking services that use automation (forms, online surveys, etc.) and inexperienced phone-bank operators to read questions over the phone with no consideration of how the responses might influence the next question that should be asked. See https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/7321/automated-reference-checks-you-should-be-very-worried

        When recruiting is done properly, the “pre-screening” starts before the job is posted and before a candidate is even contacted. HR and the hiring manager target carefully selected, narrow pools of the right kinds of people. They select (thoughtfully, intelligently) a small handful of prospects. That way there’s plenty of time to call references personally and have actually useful conversations. If recruiting is done right, the candidates are referred to the manager through a trusted contact — and there’s one of your references, done up front!

        “We have too many candidates to conduct checks personally!” is no excuse for dumbing down the reference-checking process. The problem is too random or wrong candidates.

        Done right, references CAN be checked in advance.

      • @Don: One more thing!

        “As a recruiter, I only ask for references after an applicant shows potential & I want to move them further toward the hiring manager, but before a hiring manager(s) interviews them.”

        This is how you can tell a good headhunter from a poor one. The HH is being paid by the employer to vet all candidates and present ONLY the ones that have passed rigorous screening. That means talking with people that know the candidate. Before the employer/client meets that candidate!

        • Also one more thing. I don’t think I saw anyone note this. a pet peeve I guess about how references are handled. Where HR/Recruiters ask candidates for references. Which triggers the applicant side..selecting and getting the OK from your reference bank, setting their
          expectation that they’ll be contacted….and for whatever reason, without telling the applicant HR doesn’t follow through. in todays parlance ghosts them.
          I hate it when a candidate I’m working with tells me their reference says “I never got a call from company X”
          If you have no intention of using references..don’t ask for them. If your applicant hits a home run and you decide you don’t need the reference..then tell the candidate so they can in turn brief their references with thanks for any inconvenience. And if a company wants to make a super impression, then close the cycle and follow up with the reference with a thanks. What I did … after the candidate accepted & it was a done deal, follow up with references I talked with and let them know we hired the person. They liked that.

          • @Don Harkness: I have a true story illustrating the flip side of the issue you raised: a prospective employer who calls people NOT on your reference list, who don’t work with you, don’t know you, and have an axe to grind and give you a bad reference or who say “who? never heard of him”.

            Years ago, a colleague was looking for a new job (his girlfriend had gotten a job in another city, so he was moving, and his boss and the dean had reneged on a promise to let him work from home a couple/few days per week in order to keep him/make his commute less of a killer). He’d gone on interviews, and with one employer, they were interested enough to ask for his references. He asked 4 of us (2 from Public Health, 2 from Nursing) to be references, so we waited for the calls, and then crickets. We all figured he didn’t get the job. Time passed, and then I got a call from the employer and the young lady in HR asked me some questions about him. I gave him a glowing reference (it was deserved), and then there was silence. The HR lady then said told me how strange that was, and how she was now very confused because she’d talked to another reference who had totally trashed him, given him such a bad reference that the HR lady wondered why he was still employed. Now it was my turn to be puzzled, because I knew his other references, and knew that none of them would have given him such a bad reference. I asked her who she talked to, and she gave me the name of someone who worked for the other school, but it wasn’t the Nursing staff member he’d asked to be his reference. I asked her why she talked to her, and the HR lady told me that their policy was NEVER to talk to the listed references, because those listed are always those who will only give “good” references. She explained that she went online, found the two schools at the university, plus the names of the faculty and staff in each. Then she chose 2 people in each school who he didn’t list, the rationale being that they would be “honest” and thus “better” references. She couldn’t understand the discrepancy between my reference and the one given by Nursing staff member. She also said that she almost nixed him because the two faculty members she called had never heard of him. When I learned who she called I was able to enlighten her. Those two faculty members never taught online courses in either school, and thus they would have no contact with my colleague. They wouldn’t have met him, and wouldn’t recognize his name. The HR lady thought my colleague had lied about working here because the two faculty she randomly chose didn’t know my colleague existed. The only reason she called me, she said, was because she had struck out on reaching any of the other Public Health staff, and since she was required to talk to someone from that school. I asked her why she chose the Nursing staff member (why her vs another Nursing staff member), and it was completely random. What she didn’t know was that it was this particular staff member who had been jealous that my colleague’s boss and the Nursing School dean had approved of his request to work from home several days per week because she couldn’t work from home. So she went over her own Dean’s head to upper administration, and created such a fuss that upper university administration told the Nursing Dean that my colleague couldn’t work from home.

            I explained to the HR lady that the woman she randomly chose had a serious axe to grind with my colleague, that she had been jealous of him, and even though she won, she was now going to do everything within her power to sabotage him, and in this case, that meant giving him the worst of the worst of references. I told the HR lady that my colleague and the Nursing staff member she called don’t work together (she was on the business side, he was on the academic side), that he didn’t report to her, that she had less zero idea of what he did on a day to day basis, much less the kind of worker and colleague he was, whether he was competent, professional, etc.

            I also told her that just because the faculty she called didn’t know him doesn’t mean he lied. Those faculty didn’t teach online, had nothing to do with the online programs or online students (naturally they wouldn’t know him). I reiterated that she should call the two faculty he listed as references because they do teach online, do work with him, know him and can speak to his abilities, and told her that she should the Nursing staff member he listed as a reference for the same reason (she worked on the academic side, so she actually worked with him).

            This could have been a total disaster for my colleague. The HR lady did call the references he listed, and he was offered the job (he took it). I told my colleague what happened, and he was shocked. He couldn’t understand why the HR lady called people who weren’t on his list, and then the next thought is “why bother to ask for references if you’re not going to call them”.

            Of course no one is going to list someone who would be a bad reference, so I can kind of understand why that employer’s HR lady would want to get others’ perspectives. But the problem was that she didn’t know the politics in Nursing, didn’t know the structure and hierarchy (Nursing did have a flow chart posted online of all of the employees in the school, which side they worked on, and who reported to whom, but it was buried deep within their website and it wasn’t easy to find) and thus had no idea that someone might lie about my colleague out of pique (even though she “won”). Those lies, plus the faculty not knowing him almost cost him a job.

            My colleague did everything right: he asked us if we’d be willing to be references, let us know who would be calling, the job to which he’d applied, etc. His chances were almost sunk by an HR professional who, for all intents and purposes, went online and randomly picked names out of a hat.

            Employers: If you’re not going to call the references job candidates provide, don’t ask for them at all.

    • Exactly!

      And, can you imagine what this company’s systems and processes are like
      on their bread and butter health care side of their arrogant operation?!?

      They likely have a plethora of medical malpractice issues and HIPAA violations
      hidden from the public.

  12. Deal with a machine/algorithm in the beginning stages of a job…no thanks and what a bad impersonal first impression. I don’t take tests, I don’t write essays, I don’t solve made-up issues during the job application/candidate process. I won’t even wait longer than 20 min for my job interview to start (tip from a old college professor) I’ve “walked” on many – goes back to first impressions.

    Here’s a pro tip from a C-suite level HR guy (I know, Nick’s nemesis). If you’re working and don’t want it known that you’re shopping for a new job, let the interviewing employer know you will provide them with your references AFTER you receive a job offer. In 22 years of HR work I cannot tell you how many times people (typically hiring managers) have called references and blown it for the candidate with their current employer and they get pissed (rightfully so). I just had that happen 2 weeks ago, hiring manager reviewing a candidate’s job app & resume then takes it upon himself to start calling references – guess who now knows this candidate is looking to make a break. Our recruiting team got an earful (not that it was their fault). I don’t even list references on job apps or resumes for exactly this reason. Now if you’re unemployed and don’t care who knows you’re in the market then this doesn’t apply to you.

    • I once worked for a company that interviewed a woman for a low-level clerical position. She was a woman then in her late 40s,the sole breadwinner, and she had a daughter still in high school. The said woman worked at a large bank as a teller for a 10 year tenure. She stressed to the HR department that the bank’s policy was to immediately terminate any employee they discovered were job interviewing, so she emphatically stressed NOT to call her current employer. The HR department called the woman’s current employer, and she was called in and unceremoniously terminated on the spot. The woman called the HR department in tears. Why did our HR department do this, and how would she find a new job now, and at her age, she asked.
      My former employer not only didn’t hire the then now unemployed woman, but offered no apology, nor atonement, for their gross incompetence. Sue? Yeah, right! At will state, and did she have the time and finances to retain an attorney, and one who’d even have taken her case?

      • “gross incompetence.”


        Yet another example of HR not giving a rats rear end about candidates
        unless they follow HR’s senseless rules and procedures to the letter
        which have proven over the last decade to severely lack common sense.

        • I’ve asked would be employers for references too when they’ve asked me. I’ve received responses ranging from looking like a deer in headlights, to terminating the interview, to ghosting. One thing that makes me want to take up the sword is “rules for the, but not for me”.

      • @Antonio Zoli: That’s horrible! And of course she had no recourse, given our employment at will laws.

        I have a tale: At one of my previous jobs, a colleague decided to get a new job because he was no longer allowed to work from home 2 days per week (our boss and his dean agreed, but then the School of Nursing’s business office manager didn’t like it because she couldn’t work from home, so she went above the dean’s head, and got upper level management involved, so my colleague felt he had no other choice but to leave). He was contacted for an interview, and they liked him well enough to ask for his references. He asked me to be one, as well as a staff member he knew and worked with in Nursing, plus one faculty member from both Nursing and Public Health. We all agreed, and I remember waiting to be contacted, but nothing for more than a month. Then I got a call from an HR person at the employer to which he’d applied, and I gladly gave him an excellent reference. She was puzzled, and told me so. When I asked why, she said that she’d spoken to a faculty member who didn’t know him at all, and then she’d spoken to a Nursing staff member who gave him such a bad reference that the HR person didn’t understand why he wasn’t fired. I was really puzzled, because I knew who his other references were, and I not only could I imagine any of them giving him anything other than stellar references, I couldn’t imagine why the Nursing professor would say she didn’t know him. I asked who the HR lady had spoken with, and got names of people who my colleague had NOT asked to be references! I asked the HR woman why she called those people, because they were NOT on his reference list, she said that HR’s policy was to never call the people on the candidate’s reference list because HR didn’t believe they’d get the “real” scoop on the candidate, so instead they found other people, chosen randomly, and called them. She said that she only called me after she couldn’t reach anyone else in Public Health. She said that she went online, found the School of Nursing and the School of Public Health, then just picked out names randomly from the faculty and staff and called them. She said that at first she thought my colleague lied about working there because the Nursing faculty member said she never heard of him. Then she couldn’t reach any of the faculty in Public Health. And by chance the Nursing staff member she chose to contact about my colleague was the business office manager, the same one who had sabotaged his ability to work from home 2 days per week. The HR woman told me that the business office manager had given him such a bad reference that HR almost pulled the plug on his candidacy for the job, and the only thing stopping them was that she hadn’t been able to reach the number of people they required.

        I was shocked. I then told her that the reason the Nursing professor said he’d never heard of him is because my colleague works with online students, and that particular professor doesn’t teach online, so it is natural that he wouldn’t know him or even realize that he works for Nursing because there is no reason for them to interact or even cross paths. The same is true for any Public Health faculty who don’t teach online. As for the Nursing business office manager, I told the HR woman that the reason the business office manager gave him such a bad reference is because she’s jealous that he had gotten permission to work at home 2 days per week (when she couldn’t), how she had gone over even the dean’s head (that dean was her boss too) in order to get his ability to work from home revoked. I told the HR woman that my colleague doesn’t report to the business office manager because they work on different sides in Nursing: he on the academic side, dealing with students and faculty, she on the business side dealing with faculty and staff, that the business office manager doesn’t know what my colleague does on a day to day basis, much less what kind of worker and colleague he is. I told her that the business office manager, despite “winning”, obviously still has an axe to grind with my colleague, and that she gave him a very bad reference out of pure spite. I told her that both schools are big, that it is normal for faculty to not know all of the staff and vice versa, as well as for staff not to interact or report to other staff. She, not knowing the structure, hierarchy, and politics, thought she was being smart by going outside his reference list for references. Her doing so almost cost him that job–and I suggested that she call the other people on his reference because we’re the ones who work with him, who know him, and can best speak to his work ethic, his abilities, to the kind of person he is.

        If you’re not going to call the references a job candidate provides, why even bother to ask a job candidate for references?

        Of course no one is going to list someone who will give them a bad reference, so I understand why HR thinks that the references are going to be one-sided. But randomly choosing people to call, without knowing whether the candidate even works with the person she’s calling, or if there’s politics, resentments, etc., can backfire on candidates. And if HR is skeptical of glowing references, why aren’t they equally skeptical of bad references, especially if the candidate, like my former colleague, is still employed there?

        • Per their very very stupid time wasting process. when they get references they know who NOT to call. Randomizing references also invades the person’s privacy. And if they can’t get “the real scoop” from given references it’s because they don’t know how to get it.

          • @Don Harkness: Yeah, but that still doesn’t make any sense. You’re HR; you have a candidate who wowed you, so you ask for references but then you DON’T call them? Then why bother even asking for references in the first place if you’re going to have your HR personnel look up the candidate’s workplace online, find the names of employees, and randomly pick names to call, not knowing anything? They would have been more honest if they’d told my former colleague: we ask for your references, but anyone you provide will NOT be called because we don’t trust you or them. We will find the names of others who work for your employer, and we’ll pick names out of a hat and call those people. We don’t know whether they know you, work with you, have anything to do with you, or hate your guts for reasons that have nothing to do with your abilities, skills, etc.

            Perhaps my former colleague would have run screaming, take himself out of consideration.

            He did get the job, moved out there, but ultimately didn’t stay with the company. How you’re treated during the hiring process gives you a big clue as to how you’ll be treated once you’ve been hired, and if it is badly during the hiring process, it will likely only get worse once you’re working there.

        • @Marybeth: That’s one of the more shocking stories of HR stupidity I’ve ever heard. Someone needs to talk to the organization’s chief and tell this story. People should be fired over this, not just because the candidate was violated, but because the employer is destroying its ability to hire over STUPID practices. Where do such HR idiots come from and who is manag ing them??

          • @Nick: I was appalled, and I told my former colleague what had happened. He was shocked when he learned that Nursing’s business office manager had been contacted and that she’d trashed him to a prospective employer. I don’t know whether he ever had a word with management at that company about HR’s hare-brained reference practices. I wanted to put him on notice re what Nursing’s business office manager had done to him, because what she did was not only nasty, vindictive, and unprofessional, it was slander and all of it lies. And it meant that she’d do it again, should someone else contact her (hopefully other employers wouldn’t have such nutty practices re ignoring a candidate’s references and randomly calling someone else).

            This was more than a decade ago, so I’ve no idea whether this employer is still in business or if they went under due to their own stupid practices.

    • @Adrian: You’re proof that not all HR folks are my nemeses. We have quite a few good HR people around here! Thanks for your troubling but important insights.

    • I believe that furnishing references AFTER receipt of a job offer is the way to go even if not currently working. Why risk burning through your references with calls from every company you are considering. Then factor in poor handling of these critical reference sources, e.g, by inexperienced HR recruiters and online reference surveys.

      A company can project commitment to a candidate while protecting itself by making an offer subject to references. Everyone wins.

  13. Welcome to the wonders of modern technology
    and all the abuse that comes with it.

    What a joke.

    This automated “interviewing” process will only
    get worse now that COVID-19 has literally shut down
    the economy for over seven months. There will be
    hundreds of applicants for many positions who will
    be stiff competition with plenty of experience and
    desperation to get back to work.

    Sad part is that a good percentage of those
    applicants (sheeple) will gladly bow down to
    whatever demands the employer thrusts upon them.

    It’s a new world folks. Congratulations, you’re
    wonderful technology has turned the talent search
    into mass digital sorting and your name/skills/etc.
    whittled down to a disposable number.

    I wouldn’t give companies like this even two minutes of
    my time. Find another sucker.

    • “Find another sucker”. Spot on right!!!
      As long as workers are willing participants (sadly, today you often have to be) with these employers shenanigans, these things will continue to worsen (as you’ve recognized).
      Later in life, I personally resolved to stop being a willing participant with these foolish games. Sure, some of it depends on desperation, especially as a marginalized older worker.
      These HR types, and these 3rd party types, get quite triggered when you call them out on this egregious behavior and methodology, and refuse to play along. There’s a certain point where human dignity plays into the process. I know this site likes to venerate HR, recruiters, and managers in predominately white collar occupations, but I don’t buy it.

  14. To the person who is the subject of this week’s Q&A: I would stop if I were you. You haven’t dealt with a real human being. Why would you burn your references? The whole point to having references is so they can provide insight, additional information that employers will find helpful. Automating this part of the hiring process doesn’t help at all because there’s no conversation, no follow up questions, no real discussion of the candidate and his abilities.

    How eager do you think those references will be in the future if they’re treated so poorly? That’s the risk with burning your references. They’re happy to provide references until they’re not treated well during the process, and then they’re more reluctant the next time, and the time after that.

    If I were you, I’d take Nick’s, Don’s, and others’ advice to heart and walk away from this one. If you still feel that you want to give them another chance, then reach out to the hiring manager. And why is HR doing this, including outsourcing the reference checking to a third party, instead of the hiring manager (i.e., the person to whom you would be directly reporting)?

  15. Nick. A great startup notion for the brain dead HR processes with all the video and whatnot bull manure

    Introducing, “Imm(a)oron” a new startup that saves you hours and hours of Job hunt

    Send us your HR letter (even so called head hunters OK). No game in town can match our moronic AI synthesized follow-up

    1. Video recording CHECK
    2. References. CHECK
    3. Background info.CHECK
    4. Salary question.CHECK
    5. Illegal question CHECK
    6. Phone Interview. CHECK
    7. Lame question. CHECK
    8. Lamer manager. CHECK
    9. Samford HR guru. CHECK

    We use state of the art graphics and voice techniques to enhance your looks and voice to match the video/phone interview with unsurpassed passion and vigor (like hyena pack on a dead giraffe)

    Our reference are out of this world (really….atleast a hundred years have passed since anyone has seen them alive, including the witnesses.
    Won’t you like THE Einstein willing to testify your prowess on Python on rails with ruby necklace..what the heck..for platinum subscription, we’ll even include Uncle Abe..even Captain Ahab is on standby)

    Our lawyers would represent you for sexual preferences and biases, in case, if the employer’s accuse your looks and voices are different from video in person (Harlo Stephanie….our south asian video outsourcer doesn’t differentiate between Steph or Stephen or Stephanie. All same same)..!

  16. This is maddening. I’m a retired teacher and started applying for substitute teaching positions where I not only have to provide all my credentials (which are listed on the state board of education website)but also undergo a video interview, submit letters of references, unofficial transcripts (it’s obvious that in order to obtain state licenture, I had to obtain university degrees, etc. ad nauseum) and more information than when I actually worked as a teacher…These forms are 15 pages long online! And this is before even interviewing in the flesh. I would accept a Zoom interview…and yet, schools scream for substitute teachers??!! I don’t get it.

    • “I don’t get it”. Welcome to the club!!
      I’m out in Industrial Parks daily seeing customers and searching for new business. I see help wanted signs all over. Sometimes for skilled trades, but mostly for lower-level workers. Some offer competitive pay and benefits. Employers complain to me that they can’t find suitable workers, yet they disqualify about everyone who applies, or ghosts them, for the most petty asinine reasons. I don’t know if supply/demand will wake up and reform employers, especially with this childish and unrealistic criteria they often have.

      • Antonio — you write, “yet (employers) disqualify about everyone who applies, or ghosts them, for the most petty asinine reasons.” I have 2 questions: 1) How do you know that employers in your Industrial Parks are actually disqualifying about everyone; are you basing this on some studies or some actual, hard data? and 2) How do you know that the actual talent shortage (if there really is one) is NOT due to potential workers simply not applying? and again, studies or data?

        • I’ve asked said employers are you getting applicants? As mentioned before, some are getting applicants, then are ghosted. Some aren’t getting applicants period. Some of these employers have bad reputations, so applicants are staying clear. But they still say they reject applicants left and right. They tell me reasons are having too many jobs before, felony convictions, skills not specific to their industry, don’t like the guy’s looks, guy is too old in their book, yada yada. I mean at some point you have to concede, and hire what you can hire!

  17. @Evelyn: You are not alone. Please check this PBS NewsHour video report about online applications:


  18. Chris Hogg, It’s all feedback from said employers. Here’s what some have claimed.
    1. There are a lot of people (I know this for a FACT) who simply don’t want to work, or think they should get doctors wages for a grunt job, so they’re not even applying.
    2. They get applications, call candidates in for interviews, and the candidates ghost. Or the candidates accept the positions, then ghost.
    Some of this is true, and I can be empathetic to employers in that regard. I don’t know who keeps cold hard data on any of this, I only know the empirical!!!
    But they still excessively knit pick. Believe me, if I found myself unemployed today at age 63, I wouldn’t be too proud to immediately take $16-$18 plus benefits, and any and all OT I could get, to assemble commercial overhead garage doors in a clean modern plant. But, I’d be immediately disqualified due to age, that I made better $ than that, that I’m just looking for a stop over fill gap job, that I wear a well kept beard (I live in Kansas City, ok) that I wouldn’t be viewed as a long term employee, I’d be a drain on their insurance, and hosts of other dopey reasons.

    • You’re right on with picking up a job while looking for a job.
      back in the day I was cut loose from a major computer company…a manager.
      went the usual job hunting route which seemed to endlessly go on & on.
      Then I noticed that AARP was pushing a collaborative initiative of some kind to team up with
      participating companies to hire older unemployeds. I was 65 by this time

      One company in my area, was The Home Deport, So I checked that out. I am not Mr. Handy, but have gardened. So I took a look. 1st store the hiring manager was just past teen-ager. One look at me & I could read his annoyance at being bothered to even talk to me on his face. So I went to another store..the one nearby home, that I happened to patronize for a # of years. Applied there. Nice HR lady. Suggested I try cashiering. No experience needed. Part time. Part time was just fine with me. So I went that route.

      O what Fun! Not! But I persevered & the extraordinary became the ordinary. Now this is the Houston TX area…summer. & I got my wish, often out in the garden area. the perspiration station. But I won badges etc for my work ethic. The head cashiers liked me because I didn’t bitch about anything particularly about working out in the garden area, which many felt akin to working in Hell, in Hell’s summer.

      What was fun was the look on some of my former high priced colleagues faces, who also shopped there. It was like “Oh shit..here’s the ghost of my future when they come down my aisle or worse, when I was sweeping the floor.

      $9.79 an hour, but part time became perm part time. In many ways it was one of my best jobs ever.
      Absolute contrast to most of my working life. Something different, came in, clocked in, did my job, HAD to take lunch, and HAD to go home end of my shift, unless OT, took nothing home with me. No time to be bored. And something else. It may have been low wage, but being occupied, being paid, Having a place to go to do something, took the edge off the unemployed blues, and provided a solid mental foundation for my job hunt. The pay wasn’t a factor.

      It served as a tipping point. By this time I’d realized that my current job plan, if one could call it that wasn’t working. And I decided to try recruiting, focused on it, and at lunch time I’d go out to my truck and do a lot of sweaty networking, tracking down contacts, which soon paid off & I went off to that new adventure. And left my retail stint with a healthy respect for people who work in retail, and the invisible cashiers.

      And you’re also right about applicants ghosting. It doesn’t all lean to the employers way. And there are also no shows for interviews, and worse no shows on start dates after accepting offers. And in the much cherished networking areas.. having people ghost contacts you’ve set them up with (the biggest sin of all) or ghosting oneself.

      But as a recruiter or manager, I think one very common thing derailing people and opportunity is ego. Over title and/or compensation. My way has always been doing something is better than doing nothing and one’s work life is a work in progress. Get involved with a challenge or something you like & you’ll get it back in one form or another.

  19. This subject is immediately relevant to me as I am at the offer stage.

    After interviewing with the team and the General Counsel for a non-management role, I was asked to provide references as the next step in the process. It is a very large company with an excellent reputation, yet their approach to references is through an elaborate online survey to be sent to two former managers and two colleagues. Twenty-nine questions including 27 where I will be rated 1-7 and two essays. Responses will be aggregated.

    I asked for an offer which I now have verbally, and we are discussing terms. Comp is off so it’s not yet clear we will agree.

    While waiting for a response, I stripped my reference list of anyone of any stature whatsoever as those contacted may well be irritated by this survey. This may well cost me the job as my references may come across as weak.

    What are these employers thinking? How would you suggest we deal with an HR that will not pick up the phone or email our references?

    • 1.if you really are interested in the offer, do as you’re doing. That approach to references is likely oblivious to stature. pick people who will likely spend time filling out surveys.

      2. consider that you are picking up some intel. The company is showing a hands-off approach to dealing with people, so don’t expect it as an employee.
      if that’s unappealing…consider walking away.

      3. if you’re willing to walk away, tell HR you’re going to do them a favor and give them some feedback on their process. That their approach to references is unacceptable as it’s insulting to your appropriate references and you, as any good networking, protects your network from whimsical contacts.

    • @Kate: Sorry for getting on this so late. I’d just explain that you cannot in good conscience ask your references to complete lengthy online forms. However, you’d be glad to arrange phone calls. Since you feel strongly about this (and I agree with you), let them take it or leave it.