In the November 8, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a seasoned professional takes employers and recruiters to task for demanding detailed references too soon:

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately: Recruiters are asking for detailed references before I even meet them or decide I’m interested in the job. They want multiple references before they’ll even present me for a face-to-face interview with their client. I don’t get it.

Mind you, my references are consistently stellar, so I’m not afraid of giving them out for a serious inquiry. But if I’m still collecting information on the job myself, haven’t met the hiring manager, and haven’t even had any serious discussions about terms and conditions, I don’t want my references to be bothered. When I direct them to LinkedIn, where I have strong references from former managers and peers, they aren’t pleased. They want to speak with someone in person.

What gives with this new fetish of checking references so early in the conversation, and how can I get seen by the hiring manager without having multiple agencies pestering my past managers “just in case” I might be a good fit on a particular job? I have always been taught that one’s references must be protected. Your thoughts?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

In some cases, headhunters and employers are just being more cautious — they can’t afford to make mistakes. They want to check candidates out thoroughly. But I think they’re making a mistake by asking for references rather than peripherally reviewing a potential candidate before initiating contact.

Whew — what does that euphemism mean? “Peripherally reviewing” someone? For a recruiter or headhunter, it means doing your homework by talking to people who know the candidate, to make sure you’re approaching someone who might truly be right for the job. Otherwise, don’t call the person. So my point is, the headhunter should check you out before even contacting you. That’s his job.

In other cases, when they ask for your references so early they’re fishing for new contacts — potential sources of additional candidates, or actual candidates themselves. (Ever see your references get recruited to fill a position you were being considered for? It happens.) You become a source, under the guise of being a potential candidate.

You have to use your judgment. A lot depends on how credible you feel the headhunter or employer is. I agree that it’s not prudent to let just anyone contact your references. Your references will get sick of the calls. Why put your references at risk? And that’s what I’d say to those who request the references. “Once you put some skin in the game, I will, too.” (See Take Care of Your References.)

Peripheral Review: The test of a headhunter

But lets explore further my point about peripheral review. This is something that inept employers and headhunters ignore: The very fact that a recruiter has contacted you suggests they have done their homework on you. They have good reasons to recruit you. That is, they have already checked your references — that’s what led them to you. Or — maybe not. Maybe they’re just fishing and they got your name out of a database. What then?

Well, then you’re wasting your time, because those recruiters aren’t doing their jobs. They want you to do their work for them. They want you to provide references that prove you’re worth recruiting. I think you see my point.

When an employer has a strong, well-founded interest in a candidate, they’re almost always flexible and respectful. They’ll work with you, and they will be sensitive to issues like this. They won’t be so insistent, because they don’t want to turn you off. They want to meet you.

If you don’t know the headhunter, and if you have never had contact with the employer — or they contacted you first — then there’s no reason to comply with unreasonable requests. Everyone has to ante up, including the recruiter and employer.

How do you get around this obstacle so you can talk directly to the hiring manager? You might not be able to. When a job opportunity comes to you, you relinquish significant control. But you can gain control by taking a firm stand. If this sounds overly aggressive, remember that no opportunity is real unless you are free to examine and judge it first. Be polite, but be firm. Try this:

How to Say It

(Sorry! This How to Say It tip is available only in the newsletter. Subscribe now! It’s FREE. Don’t miss next week’s extra content!)

Or, try this:

How to Say It

“Tell you what. You’re recruiting me. If you can provide me with the names of two people who endorsed and recommended me — That’s why you’re calling me, right? — then I’ll give you two more very good references. But if you don’t really know why you’re calling me, why would I give you more names?”

A good headhunter will defer to a candidate he’s serious about recruiting. The rest will hang up because you busted them. The best they can do is try to make you feel you must give up the goods if you want that good opportunity… it’s a classic sales ploy. Don’t let your references be abused.

(How can you distinguish a good headhunter from a lousy one? See The truth about headhunters.)

Just because a headhunter or employer asks for references doesn’t mean it’s time to hand them over. How do you use your references properly, and protect them from abuse?

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  1. So what do you do about an online e-application that an employer wants you to fill out after you’ve passed a phone screen, but haven’t met anyone yet? These applications want names, addresses, and phone numbers. You’d have to spoof it or enter dummy characters to move on. There won’t be anyone to discuss it with, because many of the email communications have do-not-reply addresses and no identifiable individuals to contact.
    I have this problem with an employer that came after me, not something from a job board.


  2. I don’t know how much one can add as I think Nick has summed it up well in the newsletter. I think the key is in, as the Newsletter noted, the headhunter’s people management skills/style & recruiting process.
    One attribute I’d want to see in a recruiter is respect for the references and my relationship with them. Just because someone I know will bear witness for my worth, doesn’t mean I’ll sling their names around whimsically. Doing so, would mess with their trust in me, and a good recruiter would know that.
    As an agency recruiter I checked references as a means to develop a decent shortlist before I’d submit someone to a client. But only when I thought the person was a contender. Certainly not every reference for every candidate. Time alone, would forbid trying.
    As a corporate recruiter on the inside, I only check references when we reach a point where they hit a short list.
    I am frequently a reference myself, and as such I appreciate their use. So as a recruiter I do ask for them, so I have them …if needed. It doesn’t mean I’ll call them. I’ll call them when it makes sense to call them. Further, I prefer to call them after I know the candidate better, as the dialogues can influence what I ask the reference. I value & respect their opinion otherwise why not send them a boilerplated questionaire?
    I also won’t call references as the last step prior to an offer. Meaning I don’t want to put the person & their reference in the position of concluding that an offer wasn’t extended because of the reference check.
    From both perspectives of candidate & recruiter I would be suspicious of anyone asking for references before even getting started in serious discussion. I can only conclude the recruiter is trolling for contacts, rather than interested in a useful exchange of information. Populating a data base for further reference. I may even be suspicious that there’s a real job behind it. In my view a confident and ethical headhunter won’t ask for that information until in their judgement it’s needed.

  3. @Kent: I feel your pain. Think about it. An employer comes after you. Screens you on the phone. Then dumps you into the database form through an e-mail you can’t even reply to.

    How serious an opportunity is that? Employers have so many automated tools at their disposal today that they often seem to be doing nothing more than beefing up their database.

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but while you’re filling out those forms and waiting for a reply from a personnel jockey who won’t even share her e-mail address, my candidate is meeting with the hiring manager.

    My point is this: If you play the game using HR’s rules, you get processed by the system they’ve built. If you painstakingly develop your own contacts, you work directly with decision makers who are interested in cultivating you, not just in harvesting your “information.”

    Responding to HR requests for info is not the same as picking and pursuing a company. You get stuck with the scenario you’re in.

    What I would do: Track down the hiring manager and call him or her. Or, if you have contact info on the person who called you to start with, contact them back and explain that you’d be glad to provide all the info, after you speak with the manager and establish mutual interest in proceeding further. If they’re seriously interested in you, they will cooperate. Otherwise, I think they’re just fishing, and you’re no more important to them then the next 99 resumes they’ve got in their system.

    You might worry that you’re ticking someone off. I don’t worry about ticking off people who avoid personal contact with me.

  4. Stellar post. I recruit executives for the food industry, and always caution my candidates to remove the references at the end of their resumes. We aren’t interested in references unless an offer is nearly on the table. That doesn’t mean we don’t know our candidates, my process includes six steps of research before he or she even reaches the next level. Our interviews are highly in-depth, and I can often find the candidates true skill level and commitment to a new position within our interview. A few of my candidates have had their references used against them, the reference was called to interview for the job, and the first candidate wasn’t considered. The recruiters may be just trying to increase their database. Protect your references.

  5. Don and Linda offer excellent advice. In particular, Linda reinforces the fact that a good headhunter already knows plenty about the candidate, or would not have called. Most recruiters who call you know nothing more than what they found on some list they bought. The recruiter’s (and employer’s) job is to fully assess you through research and discussions. Formal references should not be bothered until it’s time to talk turkey. (And Thanksgiving is coming…)

  6. I protect my references by pointing out to recruiters/companies that the contact information I give out about them is usually personal (i.e., home/cell phone numbers and personal email addresses). This is because I don’t want them to have to field calls at work from a recruiter unless they’ve specifically said it’s ok; someone else may get the wrong impression and think they’re looking to leave.

    I also like to give my references a heads up. No, I’m not coaching them, just letting them know that they may be getting a call from such and such a company or so and so. Again, this is a courtesy so if they get a call during an inconvenient time, they’ll be more likely to take the time to talk to the person (or call that person back).

    When I preface my explanation with this information, it becomes obvious why I only like to divulge that information when there’s a serious interest. I don’t want my references being “pestered” because I wouldn’t want to be treated that way.

    I’ve found that most decent people understand this and will skip that part until the appropriate time. If they don’t, then it’s time to move on. Anyone who can’t understand common courtesy is not someone I want to work with.

  7. Excellent comments/advice from several people on this.

    Referencing for me has always been a matter of timing, level of interest and priorities.

    I have had some clients who preferred to do their own referencing on a candidate I submitted to them. Now, this does not excuse the recruiter from doing his own homework, but I have always tried to know my client’s preferences on this and comply.

    Had one situation where I made the reference call to a previous supervisor. When the supervisor learned that his former employee was looking to make a change, he called him up and rehired him, and my client and I lost the candidate. And, I know that if the candidate was not committed to my client then this was probably for the best. I found another candidate.

  8. Nick, your advice, as always, is spot on. It empowers the job hunter, which is an issue that I tackle with my own clients. As a resume writer and interview coach, I find that many (if not most) job hunters struggle with the desire to please and the need to retain self-respect and personal power, when dealing with recruiters, employers and Human Resource personnel. I truly admire your way with words in coining a reasonable and reasoned response.

  9. The candidate could turn the tables on the recruiter and say, “I need to see your references before we proceed at all in this matter.” Especially if you have never done business with this individual in the past.

  10. Since I have 100% of the time been contacted by “I got your name from our database / a job board / etc.” rather than the detailed, researched, professional head hunters Nick Says are out there, references come AFTER. I’ve had agents give up the game with “well, can you give me some names of other potential candidates?” Um, you called me so NO!!

  11. Nick, thanks for another timely and illuminating newsletter. Each time I apply for a job, I tailor my résumé to match the job and employer. At one time I was advised to list (can you imagine) my references on my résumé, then to just put the stock phrase “references available upon request” on it. Only within the past year have I removed the latter from my résumé. It is a waste of space and I assume that any employer reading it will know that I have references and to ask for them if they’re interested in making me an offer.

    In all honesty, it never entered my mind that anyone, employers, recruiters, headhunters, HR people, whoever, would use me to troll for contacts and abuse my trust and references. I have a long list of references, and depending upon the job I apply for, I would use some but not others, and for a different job I might use different people. This way I’m not bugging the same people all of the time because I don’t want them to feel that I’m taking advantage of their generosity or that their willingness to help me landed them on a less ethical company’s or recruiter’s list or database.

    Like Chris, I also give my references a heads-up as a general courtesy. I recognize that they’re busy people, with jobs and families and lives of their own. This way if they know that they might be getting a call or an email from an agency or company or person, there are no surprises in their inboxes (especially since many of us delete messages from unknown parties or don’t return the calls).

    Common courtesy and a respect and understanding of privacy are things a prospective employer and recruiter should understand. If they don’t get it, then walking away, after politely but firmly, giving them the reason why I’m not providing references that early in the process, is the right thing to do.

    And like Kent, I’ve been in that position, particularly when it comes to applying for gov’t jobs. They want you to apply online (their app for a record of you), plus attaching your résumé and filling out and submitting any other forms they require. On the main app they want a list of references.

    What I found with one job I applied for was that the app and résumé and forms screening was done in one location for a job that would be located elsewhere. The place doing the screening would select the candidates to be interviewed, then send the list to the place where the job was located. I tried to talk to the “hiring manager”, only to be told to talk to someone (did provide a name, which is more than I found online) that the place where all of the apps & résumés went. Oh, and transcripts (also required) had to be sent to a third location!

    It is a nutty system. I don’t know what will change it. Machines are running it, and machines don’t think.

  12. The big issue with references is that they should back-up what is on the resume and in the public sector for the candidate. Nothing more.

    A reference is normally provided because they are going to support the candidate, not break down their candidacy. Who in their right mind provides a reference that would say, “I’d never hire this lying incompetent.” ??? No one.

    On the flip side, many good points here including that I never give personal contact information for a reference to anyone ahead of time or prior to notice.
    These systems are a joke, especially the government employment systems that at the highest levels are absolutely pathetic. I too am familiar with the people handling some of these electronic systems. This is especially true of government application process screening, those who are privy to our background and personal lives, as well as making a judgement call on our public lives in this digital age, and trust me I was horrified at what I perceived as the utter incompetency of those I was able to contact.

  13. Re; “Don’t take this the wrong way, but while you’re filling out those forms and waiting for a reply from a personnel jockey who won’t even share her e-mail address, my candidate is meeting with the hiring manager.”

    I certainly don’t take it wrong, and that’s the right way to go especially if you can

    1) identify and locate the actual hiring manager, not merely come close (your near miss may be a same level manager who squints and says, yeah, I think Jerry did say something about wanting to add someone. Or was it Sue? Not sure what that’s all about. Sorry I can’t help.”) This has happened with me even when I had a good inside connection who knew me.

    2) subvert and invert the logic in your own mind enough when you’re actually sought out and approached to convince youself along these lines: I just might be interested in such an opportunity, but I won’t for a minute think they’ll honor the integrity of their process as they’ve explained it to me, so I’ll circumvent it from the get go. After all, I’m really hot to work for a place that puts up a false inpenetrable front. Huh??
    Different story, of course, if you’re seeking them out proactively.

  14. @Kent: your second post summed up Nick’s advice well.

    I don’t think it matters whether it is the company who contacted you first or whether you found the job vacancy and decided to apply. I just found a couple of jobs I’m interested in, and both require:
    1.) an online application
    2.) résumé
    3.) cover letter/letter of intent
    4.) list of 3 and 5 references and their contact info.

    There was a big note stating that all candidates MUST submit the materials required to be considered.

    This goes to the issue in Nick’s letter–providing references and their contact info well before I make it through the screening process. I suppose I could just write a polite but firm sentence or two in lieu of the references, but I’m wondering how that would fly….would I be shooting myself in the foot or would I still be a viable candidate?

  15. @LT: I usually suggest that 95% of “headhunters” aren’t worth talking to. Sorry to hear you’ve never met the other 5%! They really are out there… but kinda rare.

  16. @marybeth: I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot from the moment you apply for a job via online application. A dog with a note in its mouth has no interest in what you have to say. It just wants you to take the note and follow instructions.

  17. Curious what your thoughts are on this related topic … recruiter asks for a detailed list of companies you have interviewed with in the last six months. I questioned their management on the policy and they feel it is appropriate. I do not … for one this policy just feeds their leads management and secondly it violates confidentiality agreements with other recruiters.

  18. @Peter: Companies you have interviewed with are none of any recruiter’s business. Who have they dated in the past 6 months? What bars have they frequented? Have they visited a proctologist? All off limits.

    BTW: There are no confidentiality agreements between a recruiter and a job candidate. And such agreements between recruiters and employers cannot be violated by job candidates because the latter are not party to such agreements. If you think carefully about this, other than common courtesy, recruiters owe absolutely nothing to job candidates. The reverse is also true.

    There’s a lot of confusion about who owes what to whom in these transactions. Read the agreement(s) you signed; that’s the end of it.

  19. Hi Nick … thanks for the quick reply. Yep … I agree 200% with your comments.
    Wanted to share with you this email from Bret J. Winholtz,President, Global Recruiters of Tampa …
    “It is my policy that if I’m putting a candidate in with one of my clients we would need to know who they are interviewing with actively as well as any that are related in the past.”

    Its my policy NOT to deal with recruiters like this. As one of my recruiter friends said … “I have never heard of such a policy. To me it looks like he is trying to get leads from you for more business for himself. Not very professional, but I don’t think it violates any privacy laws. I don’t like companies that take this type of approach.”

    Thanks again Nick … have a great week!

    • @Peter: I think your friend is correct. This recruiter is building his database. I’d tell him your policy is that you’re happy to talk with his clients, but who you’re interviewing with is confidential. Or just ignore him :-)

  20. Thanks Nick … I agree … not only ignored but blocked via phone and email … have a great week!

  21. Ignore. If you agree to play the game this way, any response that you give will be wrong.

    If you agree to the request, you lose. If you balk and get into telling people what they surely must already know, you lose.

    Public sector positions usually require the complete package upon direct submission. Private sector jobs only require references when you have an active opportunity and the position is dependent upon reference screening. Same rules as private sector for contract consulting.

    Most people are really naive about recruiting and recruiters. Most corporate HR recruitment systems are fundamentally broken, which is why contract recruiting is still highly profitable. Any time you open up a highly profitable marketplace with little to no barriers to entry, and where the skillset is not hard to execute, standards and ethics fly out the window. Sub prime lending for mortgage sales/brokerage is on par with contract HR recruitment. Avoid if possible.

  22. Hello Nick – thanks for your comments on this subject. I’m not dealing with headhunters; I am an experienced technical writer and editor, employed by various agencies over the past 25+ years. I’m between contracts now. An out-of-town agency found my resume online and called me yesterday. The recruiter asked for a Word copy of the resume and 2 recent references. I really thought the references request was premature, and your comments made me feel validated. It’s true that contract employment can sometimes move very quickly, but there is still time to submit references after the candidate has been submitted for an actual position. That’s what I told the agency.

    • Melanie: Lots of unscrupulous recruiters request references up front as a way of gathering more candidates. That’s what your references are to them. You’re right to be skeptical and to keep your standards high. If the agencies won’t play by rules, tell them to take a hike. I think it’s possible there are now more agencies than job seekers, so no worries :-)

  23. Thanks again, Nick. You have a nice Web site, and I think many of your comments apply to working with agencies in general – not only the traditional “headhunter.” Since I told that agency why I wouldn’t provide references now, I haven’t heard from them. Oh well – their loss. Fortunately, in western and central NY State, we have some very good agencies to deal with. I’m going to discuss this subject with a couple of local networking groups I’m in. I think a lot of people are unaware of the implications.

  24. Excellent article. A few years ago I was job hunting and stupid me I gave out my references to the recruiters. The recruiters started to hassle two of my references. They were both partners in a law firm. So I am now very cautious about giving out references to a recruiter until I have a job offer. I try to work with recruiters that I have worked with in the past. They know me. They know my work. Makes it so much easier. Stay away from the big corporate headhunters. They only want to put a ‘human’ in that position just to get the fee.

    • Bob: That’s a good summary of advice. If you don’t know the recruiter and they don’t know you, don’t work with them without due diligence. And keep your references to yourself until you’re ready to give them over – never feel pressured.

  25. A professional peer of mine, who highly respects my work skills, capabilities, and experiences referred a retained search firm recruiter to me. The recruiter mentioned who the person was that referred him
    to me.

    He has some opportunities he’s working on…one of which he did mention the name of the company.
    Recruiter and I had a discussion and he requested I fill out a candidate self-evaluation form. And then we’ll dive into my background in more detail.

    Question: Should I provide my 3-5 professional references ahead of time, as the form requests, before even having had an interview opportunity yet with any of his client companies presented to me?!

    • I am assuming that you’ve read this post. If you’re asking if you should ignore the guidance given because this person is a direct referral, that’s a judgment call that only you can make. in my (limited) opinion, you don’t have a reason to trust this person yet, and you shouldn’t provide referrals or references until you have an active opportunity and/or an offer.

  26. Thanks for the ‘sanity’ check!..Chris H. Good points…I agree. Especially since I’ve not heard from this recruiter since I spoke w/him on 11/24/17! (No, I’ve not provided him w/any docs since)