In the July 8, 2014 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader thinks his references ruined his chances at a job offer:

Help! I received a verbal offer of employment, but before the written offer they needed to verify my references through an online survey program. After two weeks, I’ve heard nothing from the employer and they’re not returning e-mails. Is it safe to say that the very people I trusted to provide good references (one that even promoted me) totally sandbagged me, or that they perhaps provided mediocre references? Do I have any legal recourse to obtain a copy of the reference report that the potential employer received? It’s absolutely devastating that some of my co-workers would do this.

Nick’s Reply

Whoa, there! I would not assume your references sandbagged you. There are other issues to consider first.

  • referencesFind out whether the online reference service has even contacted your references. Two weeks might seem like a long time, but employers routinely take months to process job applicants.
  • The problem might be no references at all. If I were one of your references, I’d never fill out such an online form. I’d have no idea who has access to it or how it will be used. I’d also find it offensive. If an employer wants me to invest my time to give you a reference, I expect the hiring manager to invest the time to actually talk to me. If your references declined to participate in an impersonal “check” like this, would you even know?
  • You have no idea what questions the “survey” asked or whether the questions are valid. This puts you at risk the minute you grant permission for such checks.
  • You have no idea whether the personnel jockeys who “read” the results of these reference checks are qualified to interpret them. If the software merely assigns a score to your references, then the employer may not even have made a judgment. You may have been rejected by software.
  • If your reference used terms the personnel jockeys don’t understand correctly, is there a way built into the system so the reference can clarify what they mean?

I think using a “survey program” to check references is unprofessional, stupid and insulting. It’s like the classic children’s game known as “telephone.” By the time a reference’s opinion is processed through software and other intermediaries, who knows what it means? I’d never use such services myself, and I’d never consent to letting software check my references.

Reference-checking services

This raises another question: Is it legitimate for an employer to use a third-party reference-checking service, even if it’s a human being that calls your references? I think not. I don’t even accept a personnel office checking references. The hiring manager should do it. Nuances can make all the difference. The answer to a question might trigger certain other questions that only the hiring manager would know to ask. A reference check is not a survey; it’s a discussion. It’s an exploration.

Remember: References are judgments, and so is their interpretation. When an employer inserts third parties and middlemen in a judgment process, they’re more likely to make mistakes. Far too much of the hiring process is outsourced; so much, I think, that the decision making is effectively removed from the hiring manager. (See We don’t need no stinking references.)

Headhunters checking references

What about headhunters? I check references on my candidates, and I share the results with my clients. Should my clients, the references and the candidates trust my judgment? Yes — because next to the hiring manager and the hire, I have the biggest vested interest in the hiring decision. No personnel manager, no third-party service and no “online survey” will earn more money when a hire is made than I will. My living hinges on doing it well. I’d better be good at it, and I’d better be a good interpreter of what my client wants and needs.

But, even then, I will have the hiring manager talk directly with references before a hiring decision is made. Why? For the same reason I already shared: I have a lot riding on a prudent hiring decision. I don’t want to have to refund my fee. I want the placement to stick, and I want everyone involved to be happy. I want the manager using his or her judgment to make the final choice.

What should you do now?

  • I’d contact each of the references you provided to the employer. Don’t ask them what they said to the program. Ask them if they even received a reference request, and whether they completed it.
  • In the future, I would explain to employers that your references are busy people who would be happy to talk about you — but you’d never dream of asking them to fill out forms online. “Just as you wanted to talk with me in person, I’d like you to talk with my references in person. I’m sorry, but I can’t ask them to complete a form online.” Why risk irritating a reference when the irritation might be reflected in their comments about you?

My answers to your other questions:

  • It’s possible that it’s just taking the company a long time to process your offer and that everything’s fine. But to let you hang out there, waiting like this, is unprofessional in any case.
  • I doubt the reference company will give you the reports. It’s worse if they do — that means the references are not confidential. Check the agreement you signed (or clicked on!) when you granted permission for reference checks. My guess is you relinquished any rights to see the results. My bigger concern is, what other rights did you grant to the reference company? Are they free to give your reference reports to other subscribers without asking you? (That is, you might interview at another company that has access to your references without even asking you. Surprise!)
  • As for your co-workers delivering bad references: That would be my last concern. If you’re not sure what someone will say about you, then why are you using them as references? Finally, did you give your references a heads-up that they were going to be polled? That’s crucial — they need to be prepared for the request so they can think about how they’re going to respond. (If you need to deal with an undeserved nasty reference, see Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention.)

The bottom line is, impersonal, automated reference checking can cost you a job. What you think are references may be little more than checked-off responses to canned questions processed by software that gets your references angry.

I’d start by confirming the references were checked. Then I’d ask your references what they thought of this “online reference checking” system. You might get an earful. Finally, take a strong position on how employers check your references.

If you want maximum leverage with an employer, “Don’t provide references — Launch them!” That’s a section of Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get In The Door (way ahead of your competition) that explains how to use preemptive references.

A note to employers: Why do you bother interviewing job candidates in person, and then rely on impersonal, indirect reference checks conducted by software? If you’re going to talk to the candidate, then talk to the references, too! Or why not just let the software make the hiring decision? (I take that back. I get the feeling that, lots of the time, software does make the decision.)

Are your references real or software? Do you let employers “poll” your references rather than talk to them? What’s the best way to handle your references?

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  1. I think that ruling out employers simply based on the fact that that utilize “survey programs” for reference checking is naive and may mean that prospective employees will lose potential positions at good companies. For example…

    I was recently asked to provide a reference for a former employee who was seeking employment with J&J via an on-line survey form and I happily complied.

    I’m not sure what the downside of this kind of feedback is. You never know what a reference is asked during a “live” call nor if the person calling is “qualified” to understand what they are hearing. I was asked to rate him on a scale of 1-7 in a variety of areas and provide additional feedback via text. It definitely took more time from me. I asked the candidate to help me craft the start of some of the answers (“what are your top three assets”, for example).

    He now has a great job with a huge MedDevice company that I guarantee he wouldn’t have if he had kicked up a fuss about reference checking.

    Another perspective to consider. Times are changing, whether we like it or not….

  2. I conduct due diligence on companies I’m looking at so if a potential employers are not willing to do the same on a person to person level then I know the fit is not right… Business moves fast, but it still boils down to creating that personal relationship… One on one, not one on software.

  3. Heather, thanks for your comments. Most companies forbid discussing references with outside parties and instruct managers to direct all reference enquiries to HR. There, HR will confirm dates of employment and little else. I don’t see many people filling out third party surveys on employee references in this age of liability.

    J&J follows this policy, interestingly enough.

  4. What’s wrong with this picture. A firm plans to hire a manager and pay perhaps well north of $100K per year, but turns the crucial process of checking references over to a 3rd party using automated software coded by 20 somethings? I see a one word response to a firm doing that – run.

  5. Funny you bring this up. I JUST went through this process for the first time a few days ago and was offered a great paying job. I was a little put off by this software to say the least. I filled out the online reference checker with my references. I contact each one before I put them in. They all told me that they had filled out the survey and the online service that this company used let you see when each person had filled out the questionnaire but not their answers. It took a little over a week to get a confirmation from the company so I would say 2 weeks is not out of the question.

    It’s a shame these big corporate HR departments have come to this and can’t pick up the phone and manually call references anymore!

  6. Just to clarify what VPSales just stated, many companies (especially large ones) forbid individual current employees to give references on either current or former employees of the company. That does not prevent that employee from giving a reference referring only to their mutual work with another company. Of course, if that reference has left the company, the restriction no longer applies.

    I’ve had Heather’s experience too re references and online forms can be rigorous. I had one of my reference be extremely annoyed and another one feel it wasn’t relevant. (FYI, the job was never filled and closed.) The most important thing is to warn your reference in advance and get their feedback after. Nick, I agree that I’d rather have it done verbally…but the reality is that they do it because they can, and there’s very little we can do about it.

  7. I used to work at a company that used the automated software reference checks. I didn’t like it but it wasn’t my choice.

    I saw a few completed forms and was twice surprised by the mediocre scores and comments provided. It made me question the intelligence and loyalty of the people who filled them out. I gave the candidates the benefit of doubt because there was no opportunity for me to ask the references for clarification or context, and the report didn’t tell me which reference provided which comment.

    Personally if I received one of these forms to complete (assuming I had agreed to be a reference) I would probably fill it out scoring the candidate with the highest marks on everything, only adding commentary where required and asking the candidate to provide me with any other wording required such as a listing strengths and weaknesses. In other words, if the company is not going to invest their time in calling me for a reference, I’m not going to invest more time than I need to complete a form, but I wouldn’t refuse to complete it or do anything that might harm the candidate’s chance of getting an offer.

    I agree with Nick that these forms are unprofessional, stupid and insulting. They are also offensive and a pain to complete. That said, I also agree with Heather that times are changing whether we like it or not. For most people it wouldn’t be wise to avoid every company that uses reference checking software. As much of as hassle as these forms are, I don’t think it’s a good idea to push back on them or you could be labeled as “difficult” and jeopardize an offer.

    Since the writer has received no response from the company it’s likely that one or more of the forms have not been completed. Maybe the reference didn’t recognize an email with a password and website, or the email went to a spam folder.

    One more thought on why we should be very worried: reference checks used to be a last step to only the final candidate but I’ve heard that some companies are now checking references on multiple candidates earlier in the process. Perhaps this is because it is much easier to send out a few emails with passwords then to invest the time to actually call people. Personally I refuse to have my references bothered before I receive a verbal offer contingent upon the references, and I definitely would not want my references bothered with this software if I was not the final candidate. I wonder if that is where this software may be leading us since it is so easy for HR to just hit the send button.

  8. This is even stupider than reviewing a resume by key word.
    Sounds like another HR approach to making recruiting ‘more efficient’ used by people who don’t understand recruiting and have never really recruited anyone for a mid-level, professional or higher level job.
    An automated form e-mailed by a 3rd party? Does anyone really believe the form will be relevant to the question of how this candidate is going to solve a problem/increase profit/etc.
    Would anyone believe this is utilitarian except an HR person who thinks one-size-fits -all?

  9. @VPSales, @Dee: I’m laffing my A off.

    “Most companies forbid discussing references with outside parties”

    “many companies (especially large ones) forbid individual current employees to give references on either current or former employees of the company”

    Then those same companies want to check references and expect people to talk to them. It’s so ridiculous, you can’t make it up.

    Here’s the deal: References are the coin of the realm. They are the deal-breaker and sometimes the deal-maker in the critical path of hiring. The opinions of others in our professional community matter enormously. (Hell, it’s what all the rush toward “social recruiting” is all about.) So what do employers do? They legislate against references. They dumb the reference checking process down (“Let the software do it”).

    Dee, what’s a person to do? Say NO. If I were e-mailed by an employer to fill out an online reference report, I’d e-mail back: “Sorry, but my comments are too important to use a form. I’d be happy to talk with you. Feel free to call me at XXX XXX-XXXX any time.”

    Everyone else can go figure it out while diddling their keyboards. It’s funny – all the business media tell us that jobs that can be automated are going away. (I agree.) Only jobs that require creativity, judgment, and higher cognitive functions will survive and thrive – so become good at those.

    Jobs like management, decision making, judgment, and people relations. Yup. So let’s pretend that judging people is a software task, because HR says it is. Gimme a break.

    Now let’s talk about this inconvenient truth. HR has now automated everything relating to dealing with people – metrics, recruiting, hiring, evaluating, reference checking, tracking, and much, much more. Time for HR to be turned entirely over to software, dontcha think?

  10. @Carol:

    “One more thought on why we should be very worried: reference checks used to be a last step to only the final candidate but I’ve heard that some companies are now checking references on multiple candidates earlier in the process. Perhaps this is because it is much easier to send out a few emails…”

    Automation has made it possible to check references the same way HR solicits job applicants: IN BULK.

    The dirty little secret is that HR uses those masses of “reference checks” to recruit the references. It never occurs to anyone, but once they fill out that form, including their name, contact info, employer, job title, etc., it’s fodder for the database – and that’s exactly how it’s used.

    HR is not in the people business. It’s in the database business. This data is bought, sold, rented, and traded. Once HR farms reference checks out to third parties, HR signs over rights to it. The third parties own the data, to do with as they please. Next time, read the release you sign carefully. Your references don’t matter any more than your accomplishments matter to LinkedIn — all they want is your data record, no matter what’s in it, because it’s worth money again and again and again.

    Automation can be a great thing, until it becomes THE thing. In HR, automation became the raison d’etre long ago. It’s why I think HR can now be automated out of existence.

    • I interviewed with O’Reilly Auto Parts and they wanted me to do that. They guy at a location in Las Vegas, NV called me the moment I submitted an application and led me on like there was no tomorrow. I understand why now.I became extremely angry and actually called up that service. Told them they could kiss off.I called O’Reilly in Missouri and told them that was innsppropriste.

  11. @miloak: Note what folks here say about providing references. They routinely ask the subject of the reference what they should include. (I’m not ragging on anyone – this is common.) HR knows this goes on. So consider: What is a reference really worth if that’s what’s going on?

    Now read this:

    HR knows this goes on. So it’s no surprise that HR encourages it, then rationalizes that references really ARE (as you point out) no different from scanning for keywords. It’s all one big dumbshow. More:

    So what are we to do? Someone once told me, when the going gets weird all around you, RAISE YOUR STANDARDS. I firmly believe that’s the best strategy if you want to get ahead. Raise your own standard of behavior – make the bar higher for yourself to jump, then let everyone know about it.

    It’s why I tell you to tell an employer, “Give me a live problem you’d want me to handle if you hire me. Let me show you how I’d do it.”

    That’s a high bar!

    Or, “If I can’t show you how I’d do this job effectively, you should NOT hire me.”

    Again, a high bar. Keep raising it. “I don’t fill out forms. I talk to people about how I (or the person I’m providing a reference for) will add profit to your bottom line. That requires a personal conversation and discussion. Or I don’t play.”

    The only way to raise the standard of employers’ behavior is to raise our own and make it clear. In the words of my 5th grade buddy, Eddie Henley, “You play with the best, or you die like the rest.”

  12. Nick, I agree with you that “HR can now be automated out of existence” and “HR has now automated everything relating to dealing with people…”. They have basically become useless and in the way. They are nothing but a bunch of data trackers. They are the biggest suckers for non-value-added software.

    I think this began with automating the employee review process when HR inserted their software applications into the process. The focus shifted from a dialogue between employee and manager and a culture where employees knew where they stood throughout the year, to one of where employees and managers filled out on-line forms once or twice a year when HR sent out the website link. Conversations took a backseat. Their software produced neat bell-curve graphs, so if you had all good employees you had a problem, your graph didn’t comply with the algorithms.

    Any now their applicant tracking systems and reference checking software are taking over. I’m sure you are right that when references fill out the forms their contact information goes into the company’s database but since HR doesn’t seem to be able to pull good candidates out of their ATS are they going to be able to find these references later on by searching for key words? If they are selling it or trading it that is scary!

    Last, while all this automation is going on I don’t see HR headcount going down.

  13. In my case, NOT ONE of my bosses or other references is still at the companies we worked at together. One company closed its local facility entirely. I can prove I worked at these companies (old paperwork, pay stubs, performance reports, awards, etc.) I have kept in touch with some former coworkers and bosses who are now elsewhere. But what does one do when there is no one left at my former employer who is actually personally familiar with me or my work?

  14. So let’s summarize:

    1. HR ‘recruits’ by scanning key-worded resumes from job board sites. In the alternative, they engage an outside firm (Low Hanging Fruit, Inc.) to do the same.

    2. ‘Initial interviews’ are conducted by the new HR person, who has no idea what the business actually does, no concept of what the position entails and no idea of how to treat candidates professionally.

    3. ‘Reference checking’ has turned into an online survey, pretty much like the hundred or so other online surveys that hit my delete bin every day.

    And line managers wonder why the ‘talent’ they get to choose from is young, hip, open to change, but only after many years rises to the level of mediocre while the real talent they want to hire has opened their own shop (be it consulting, app development or vacuum cleaner repair).

    The civilian labor force participation rate of 62.8% for the month of June may be a response to modern HR methodology as well.

    It is well past the time to reduce HR’s overall influence in the hiring process, and return it to a Salary & Benefits title and role: Keep the pay envelopes correct, and keep the benefits available.

  15. Awesome topic and a frightening one.

    For a position with a very large software company I was put on hold for many weeks. Given these weeks were after my initial start date this was a month of no income. I eventually called and was told the third party reference check was not complete. I called my references and they had all responded. So I asked again what they were waiting for. It turned out the third party had also been told to do a criminal background check with local police departments. The firm had done an unbelievable job which included one of my references talking about my first job in the city of Exeter. The challenge was the City of Exeter Police Department in Massachusetts could find no record of me and thus they were going to fail my background check. I was able to point out that this job was in the city of Exeter in the UK and I got the job.

    More recently I hit the automated system, or my references did. Going for a senior C-Level role with a school district when I got a call from one of my equally senior references telling what he had just been through. It seems at the last minute the selection committee decided to have HR pull references before deciding who to interview. Thus my references got a call to fill out an online questionnaire but they had hours in a busy day to do this for me. The online questionnaire was 10 pages long and included three essay pages with questions such as “Explain how you met and know the candidate,” “Describe the candidate’s personality including as a team member and an individual” and “Explain why the candidate is the ideal person for this position.” Each section was marked – at least 500 but not more than 1000 words. The whole process took over 1 hour and based on their feedback the committee did not even call me for an interview.

    I want me references to be happy to give me a reference. These online systems are a way to lose the good graces of those who wish to help you. Now I ask, but companies will not tell you when and how they check references.

    @Nick – you said and I also agree:
    “It’s funny – all the business media tell us that jobs that can be automated are going away. (I agree.) Only jobs that require creativity, judgment, and higher cognitive functions will survive and thrive – so become good at those.”
    If this is the case then why is recruiting heading in the opposite direction with ATS and online references system? I know several recruiters who are really concerned about the loss of talent seekers has been replaced by automatons inside HR.

  16. We may as well abolish HR and the entire hiring process. I will add that the surveys are also being used by recruiters.

    Based on the BLS reports, we’re well on the way to where work gets done off the books or by freelancers. L.T., Carol and Nick are all spot on. It’d be funny if it didn’t hurt my wallet!

    Nick, I got an email targeted to hiring managers from ClearFit. I’m not hiring and I searched their board once or twice on what kind of jobs they had. I may in the process of looking opted in.

    Hope you have had a great start to July! I am thrilled to announce a great new feature we’ve added to your Clearfit dashboard this week.

    Let’s start with a story…one you may have experienced while using ClearFit.

    You’re in the “hiring zone”. You’re reviewing all the applicants and you see some with potential.

    Then…BLAM! Something distracts you. Later, you come back to ClearFit and…uh oh, who were those gems again?

    Was Sally any good? Mark or Marcus? Hmmm, you wonder…If only there was a way to identify those gems so you can remember them for later.
    (thanks Marvel for the free comic generator :)

    Well we have answered your wishes! (It’s almost like we’re psychic…). As of today, we’ve added Ratings to your Employer Dashboard.

    Ratings is the magical new ability to add “stars” to any applicant on your job. Rate them on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, and remove at will.
    What does a star mean? Whatever your heart desires!

    Once you’ve rated an applicant, you can sort your list by star rating to make sure you don’t lose sight of those gems. You can read more about the feature here!

    What’s coming up next, you ask? Right now we’re working on getting you more applicants faster, more details coming up soon!

    Of course if you have any questions, please reach out! Either hit reply, call us at 1-877-789-8767 or contact your hiring coach directly. Until next time, happy hiring!

    Kim Phelan
    VP Product Management, ClearFit

  17. RE: auto references
    These have been around a few years now. 3-4 years ago a friend (let’s call her Jan) of mine was offered a job verbally, hiring contingent on her references. At the time we’d never heard of auto references and her story is scary.

    Sue provided the references to the company (a major healthcare insurance company based in San Francisco beginning with BLUE), who never explained the auto-process.

    Jan’s references did indeed receive an email request from this company, but one of the references thought it was a joke. The friend proceeded to fill out the form in a very unflattering way (again, she thought it was a joke). We all agreed that was a stupid move on her part, but…

    Jan called each of her references to give them a heads up: expect a reference call from the company. That’s when she learned of the “joke” response.

    Jan immediately called the hiring company to explain what had happened. The HR rep told her there was nothing they could do! This response could not be flagged or changed in any way. As you mentioned, it was added into a “score” of some kind.

    My friend did not receive the job, but it was apparently because of something else, rather than the unflattering reference.

    In 2014 when there are prank emails in everyone’s account occasionally, it’s hard to know what’s legitimate. Friends/references need to be warned!

  18. I think the same arguments could be made about contract phone screeners at the start of the hiring process who really don’t have any true stake in whether or not the caliber of the people coming in are high or not. It’s just checking a box and making some judgment as to whether or not the candidate seems okay or might be an ax murderer in waiting. I for one have been trying to work out ways to politely refuse any interviewing beyond basic fact checking and resume clarification. Anything more should be conducted by a hiring manager with an organic tie to the company and who is the one to benefit from hidden traits and personal chemistry. The same goes for subjective essay questions and other “forms”.

  19. @Carol:

    HR: “the biggest suckers for non-value-added software”

    Thanks. You just gave me a great tweet. L.T., SteveG, Kent V, everyone who’s posted on this topic — your comments are incredibly insightful and damning. This is a huge mess – over-automation has dumbed down hiring to the point where companies are convinced there’s a talent shortage during the biggest talent glut America has ever seen.

  20. @ Nick–it doesn’t seem to bother management in the least, as long as they keep reporting increased profits to investors and the stock market. Of course there’s hardly any blood left in the ‘efficiency innovation’ rock so these companies are headed to a brick wall anyway….

    Our economic system is so broken it reinforces the everyday lack of common decency. The Golden Rule has been kicked to the sewer. Of course, that is what made Western countries different.

    We have imported an Indian/Chinese disregard for the employee as a human being grafted on to some perverted form of free-market capitalism. (Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman are doing 360’s in their respective graves.) This is from government on down. We’re just expensive units to pay, house, feed and keep well. Life is considered cheap in those cultures. Life is good for the elites and those who don’t care….a struggle for everyone else.

  21. Nick–thanks for an eye-opener article. I was the one who brought the group interview thing to your attention a year or so ago, and wasn’t aware of this latest “innovation” from HR. I am immediately checking to make sure we don’t engage in this outsourcing stupidity.

  22. The article and comments were so educational, dead on truth and eye opening. I believe EVERY job seeker, company, hiring manager, potential candidate, transitioning student into the workforce should read this blog.

    Crazy sad fact. Don’t know how I came across this site, but according to formerly,their research numbers “indicate” that HR is a high growth industry. If that is true it’s just sad. However, this site still perpetuates the “automated hiring process”.

  23. Nick,
    Big companies understand the restrictions on references, and deal with it when they try to get one. Plus you can nudge nudge wink wink a reference – I can’t give this person a reference, but I’d love to.
    OTOH, it is another reason to network, as you recommend. You should be able to get fellow professionals not in your company to use as references, then you are in the clear.

  24. @Dan Erhlich: Hey, Dan! I’d be interested to know what you learn about your company’s reference checking practices.

  25. @Scott: I’ve never had a problem getting detailed references, even when a company’s policy forbids it. If you approach people with sensitivity and candor, and assure them of confidentiality, most will tell you almost everything. But I can’t emphasize enough – they need to be able to trust you. And that’s the problem for most reference checkers – they just don’t take the time to have a conversation and to cultivate trust. They’re in a hurry and they don’t want to “waste” time talking. Reference checking is a two-way street. The person you’re talking to will sometimes ask for your insight and advice, too – about their business or industry. You must be ready to give something back. Third party reference checkers just don’t do this – they can’t. And online forms? Forget it. Like the art of conversation, and the art of gentle influence, the art of reference checking is largely dead. Which makes it a lot easier for the rest of us.

  26. Apparently, HR employees are beating a path to the door to eliminate their own positions. Very wise? It used to be that corporate just laid off HR first when looking for cost-savings. Now they just engage them in their own outsourcing. Anyone out there in HR feeling duped . . . yet?

  27. @marilyn: AT&T once hired me to help employees find new jobs during a massive layoff. Who hired me? HR. And who, exactly, was I hired to help? HR’s Career Development Team. If I worked at it a bit, I could turn that into a clever joke. The punchline goes like this: The same team had contracted with huge outplacement firms like Lee Hecht Harrison, DBM and Right to help the many thousands who were being let go. When time came to get help for themselves, the CDT hired me. Indeed — who’s been duped?

  28. @ EEDR

    “They’re dead, Jim!”

    Not all of my old bosses are dead, of course, but most of the organizations that I worked for in the last 40 years are.

    When my job disappeared five years ago, one of the things that made me despondent was my lack of references.

    In the application process, this probably does automatically “deselect” me, but fortunately, sometimes you can sneak into an interview without references, and even get an offer.
    At least for a “survival” job.

    My real-life name is quite common now: I’m more concerned about having my name match a wrong-doer’s name during a background check than having a bad reference pop up during lazy recruiting.

    The other weird thing about references is that once upon a time, they were checked while you were still employed. Once employers started becoming dismayed at losing valuable players, they stopped giving good references. I cannot for the life of me understand why a process that basically became invalid thirty years ago is still considered an important part of the recruiting process today.

    I don’t have any answers for this dilemma, but please don’t fret at the moment: the rules of engagement have changed, and no one knows what they are. Keep looking for work until you find it, and don’t worry about stumbling along the way—I’ve stumbled a lot, and will stumble as I continue to search.

    Who knows—I might even stumble into some good references along the way.

    @ Kent V

    The terms “organic tie”, “hidden traits”, and “personal chemistry” are very good terms. Those human traits that create an exceptional business are at least being recognized, if not understood and put into practice.

    Reminds me of what Nick once said about resumes five years ago—that is used to be someone with half a brain would actually read the resume, and actually read between the lines to make a judgment.

    Actually, there is a case in medical science where a man was actually born with half a brain. The brain adapted, and became fully functional. The man was actually fairly bright and successful.

    So I guess it’s no real stretch to claim that half a brain really is better than no brain at all.

    Keep the faith.

    Citizen X: TDM

  29. I think I have an opposite problem right now…

    It’s dealing with an exploding job offer (expires 5pm today).

    I did not give them my references, they appear not to want them and they offered me a job anyways.

    There are several other things that didn’t feel right and it’s compounded by the fact that I have/had 24 hours to decide.

    The kicker is that it’s a field I want to break into.

  30. @Dave: Sometimes an exploding offer is legit – the company needs a quick decision and needs to move on. But that changes your calculus – you must shed the pressure and focus on the things that matter. To me, these are (1) the people, (2) the products, (3) the company’s prospects. Are they all solid? Do you have enough good evidence?

    Their lack of interest in references isn’t a good sign, but I know companies that like to go on their own judgment. So, were the interviews thorough? Do YOU think they learned enough about you to decide to hire you? Some companies subscribe to the churn and burn hiring model – hire quickly, fire quickly if hires don’t work out, and move on.

    Try to write down what didn’t “feel” right. If these issues are concrete, that tells you something. I once took a job that had all kinds of red flags, but I took it anyway as my last shot at staying in a field I had lost interest in. I quit, no real regrets except that I wasted the time. I knew the risk I was taking. Are you willing to take a risk like that to get into a new field?

    I’m not “leaning” one way or the other because I don’t know the details (and don’t want to). Just trying to give you some questions to ask yourself.

  31. @Nick

    Thanks for the insight – I have asked some of my friends about offers like this and they have seen exploding offers, but they tended to have more data available to them to make an informed decision. In other words, they came away with a good understanding of the job, and felt “challenged” by the interview.

    My main concern was that I never got a formal, written job description (or “this is the type of person we’re looking for”). Instead, I got a bunch of verbal “promises” and not very many specifics. I also felt very rushed in the interview process (i.e. they want to put a warm body in a seat as quick as they can).

    There is also another big no-no that they did that defies all logic/common sense. If I went ahead and took the offer, I could shoot myself in the foot by doing so (even though it’s a really small chance).

    I can understand the value in the exploding offer, but all parties need to be well informed. I do not feel that well informed.

  32. @Dave: This kind of thing is most common when a “job shop” or “contracting” company is in the middle. Is that the case here? Or are you dealing directly with an employer who would put you on its own payroll?

  33. @Nick

    It’s one of these in-the-middle companies. They offer “IT Solutions” to other companies. I will be an employee at that company, and I could be moved around if I wanted to or had some skills needed elsewhere.

    I wouldn’t be a contractor in the sense that I don’t have a set end date (the project I would be on has an open ended contract), I have standard benefits, a salary, etc. They told me if the contract dried up, I would still be on their payroll and it would be their responsibility to plug me somewhere else. Obviously, if more contracts dried up they would cut people. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen.

    So, I was a little hesitant going into the interviews. And the data I have available has confirmed that hesitation.

  34. @Dave: When in doubt, I do what my old mentor taught me. Use your judgment, and do the best you can. He was always big on judgment.

  35. Might it be an option to copy/paste (e.g. from LinkedIn) into the cover letter an endorsement written by a former supervisor (also a reference), which is easily verified online?

    Is it “non-PC” for applicant to ASK whether reference checks are done directly, or, whether via a software questionnaire?
    I would think most references would prefer a brief phone call, or email, direct from the hiring person/company.

  36. @Kathy: Who cares whether it’s pc? It’s simply not wise to risk having your references abused with unreasonable requests. Look at it this way: Imagine if you were to ask the employer, prior to getting an offer from them, for names and contact info on 3 customers – references you could talk to, to assess how good a company this is that you’re talking with? Think they’d fork them over? Think they would not ask what you’re going to do with them and how? The double standard is just irksome.

  37. @Kathy,

    I have to agree with Nick – “Who cares whether it’s pc?”

    Anything that an employer says/wants is fair game to be questioned (respectfully of course). If a company asks for references, it is more than reasonable to ask how/when they will contacted.

  38. Thanks Nick, and Dave.

    As to my other question (somewhat related to “Don’t wait for the employer to ask you the first question”), could this be a proactive step regarding references?
    …an option to copy/paste (e.g. from LinkedIn) into the cover letter an endorsement written by a former supervisor (also a reference), which is easily verified online?

    Also, if a prospective employer asks for references info up front, what’s the best way to politely decline until a possible job offer? e.g. “If you believe I’m the right candidate for this position, I’ll be happy to provide references.” (Then, ask how the ref-checks are done.)

  39. I agree with Nick, as well, re “PC” question from Kathy. Interviewing is supposed to be an interactive process, not a bully employer victimizing candidates. In other words, basic social skills . . . a dialogue. Clearly that level of “sophistication” is being driven out of this process which seems to have devolved into an unnecessary ordeal.

  40. @Kathy
    Try, “References will be furnished at the time of the personal interview.”

    Many of these references are used by data-miners who have no intent to hire anyone.

  41. @Marilyn, especially if you are dealing with an Indian recruiter and job shop, never give references upfront because they WILL data mine it. But they have the complete right to bang you out of the process. (But you really don’t want to deal with them)

    @Kathy, hold the references till you have the personal (face to face) interview. They may insist up front and you can try to decline till a job offer. But definitely ask before handing over HOW and WHEN they will be contacted.

  42. Ha, in Australia they want 3 references listed directly on your Resume ! And if you don’t, they’ll simply toss the application.

    The ‘logic’ is that they can do ref checking BEFOREHAND so as not to waste precious time interviewing those with less than stellar references.
    Go figger….

  43. I’m a bit late to this conversation, but wow, I’ve been careful with my references, but now I have something new to worry about. I no longer list my references on my résumé or on an application. Like CitizenX, I too, think that I have probably been disqualified because I didn’t list them.

    Earlier this spring I was talking with a hiring manager re a job vacancy. He was interested, but told me that I would have to apply online. I looked at their online application, and sure enough, there was a space for references–names, titles, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, plus lines for information re our relationships (bosses, former bosses, colleagues, etc.). I called the hiring manager back, offered to directly email him my résumé in lieu of filling out the online application, and told him very nicely that my references are very busy people, and therefore I never provide their names, contact information, or other information until there is a serious offer on the table and we’re negotiating duties, salary, benefits, start time, etc. I explained that the reason I do this is so I don’t burn my references. They will gladly talk to prospective employers who are not only interested but serious about hiring me, and I have no intention of abusing their generosity and good will.

    The hiring manager hemmed and hawed and started sucking air, then finally said that he never ever had an applicant refuse to provide references, contact info, and other info. I explained that at this stage, it is too early for me to do this and reiterated the reasons why. He then said that “HR requires” all of this information at this stage, and that it is because of “government regulations”. At that point, I thanked him for taking the time to talk to me, told him that I hope that he finds someone for the job, and told him that HR is giving him a snow job re their so-called “reference requirement”, and suggested that he talk to in house counsel or if he doesn’t have in house counsel, that he talk to an employment lawyer. It would be worth the attorney’s fee to get accurate information about employment law, his rights and liabilities as an employer and what HR can and cannot require, as well as what non-existent “government regulations” require HR to mandate that all job applicants provide that kind of detailed information about their references. I even provided him with the names and contact information of two good employment lawyers, and wished him luck.

    The bs that HR pulls is unbelievable. There are no government regulations that require applicants to provide references at any stage of the hiring process; employers can hire without getting references if they wish.

    What scares me even more is that now even this part of the process is being automated. Thanks, Nick, for the warning. I’m very careful anyways, but never thought that I’d have to read the fine print lest I sign away the right of my references NOT to be bothered.

    Checking references used to be a more personal process; hiring managers called the references of those to whom they made job offers; it was often the final step in the process. I had job offers predicated on “the offer is final once we’ve contacted/spoken to your references”. But this always happened AFTER they made me an offer, after the salary and benefits negotiation was completed.

    I think this change (and it is for the worst, not the better) is part of the overall automation of the hiring process. A computer decides that you meet their requirements based on a .00005 keyword search and if you managed to jump through all of their hoops. You don’t actually talk to a human being until the computer has approved you. Now I learn that a computer will handle checking my references, that no human being will bother to call them. A computer cannot have a conversation, cannot ask follow up questions, go into details, or go off on a tangent based on my reference’s answer to questions. None of this makes any sense.

    I think it is time to automate HR out of their jobs, and bring back the “human” to HR.

    Scary…..but thanks so much for the heads-up. More things to worry about, but I’m glad I know because now I’ll know what to look for.

  44. @EEDR: don’t feel bad. A number of my former supervisors are also deceased. With one prospective employer, there was no room on the form to indicate that the boss was deceased, and no way for me to move forward with the application. I called the hiring manager and HR and explained the situation, then asked what they wanted me to do. The hiring manager had no idea that HR had set up the application in such a way that it wouldn’t let candidates go forward; the HR jockey I spoke to told me that he had never heard of an applicant who didn’t have a living reference or boss for a previous job. Yes, he sounded very, very young. He suggested putting down someone else from that job who was in charge, and three others in that job were also dead. It so rattled the HR jockey that he said that I was disqualified. At least with the federal government, there were lines at the end of each job listing so I could indicate that my supervisors were deceased, that the company had gone out of business, etc.

    No one is using any common sense, and you’d think that after the crash, HR would be aware that some businesses are no longer around, and even without a crash, that supervisors die.

    I tried to make a joke of it–the only way they could communicate with my former boss would be via a medium in a séance, which went right over the HR jockey’s head.

    Computers don’t think, and automating reference checks makes as much sense as automating the reading of résumés and hiring people.

  45. @marybeth

    I was contacted and encouraged to apply to a job back in May by a HR jockey. (It looked like the person contacting me was working for a firm that provided full HR services to small business, most likely working with this small company)

    I went and looked at the form, and the amount of data they wanted was daunting to say the least. They wanted 15 years of employment history along with Supervisor Names, addresses, starting/ending salary, phone numbers, etc. They also wanted your SS # and 3 references.

    I could easily see someone going down to the bank and getting a loan with all that info. :-)

    I called him out on it, that in all my interviewing in the last year, no one wanted that level of detail. He said they were going to take out the SS #, but everything else was “industry standard”

    I have no problems submitting that info if there is some form of job offer on the table.

  46. @Dave: “industry standard” my… Oh, well. 15 years of employment history is nothing but “HR mindlessness.” How many candidates do they lose to their competition because they’re too lazy to actually assess a candidate before they ask for “the long form?”

  47. @Dave: You’re dealing with an amateur. Did they ask for your DOB, as well? (wink, wink)

    @Nick: You nailed it, yet again. :)

  48. @Nick:

    I heard a radio talk host one time declare that your resume should fit on a business card: Name, job title or career field, contact info.

    If the recipient is interested, they will contact you for an interview. If they weren’t no amount of resume filler was going to change that fact.

  49. Hi Nick,

    After 4 different interview , they made called the references I gave and invited for a last interview with CEO, do you think I have another competitor which they check references or am I the only one where they will negotiate?

    Thank you,


  50. @Max: There is no way to tell. Just do your best at this point. Don’t worry about competition because you can’t control that. You can control only what you do.

  51. I’m starting to encounter more applicant tracking websites that make reference info mandatory, filling with bogus data (like “upon request”, fake phone number). Looks like this is yet another area that may require legislation to restrict so that innocent parties aren’t hurt. And a 10 page online questionnaire before an interview, never mind an offer? That is beyond absurd.

  52. @Stevie Wonders: I’m wondering myself. How far must this all go before people just stop using automated application systems out of disgust? Imagine the more productive ways they’ll start cultivating real job opportunities.

  53. Speaking from the point as someone a person used for a reference (was not asked before my e.mail was given out), it’s annoying. I was sent a request on the Saturday I was leaving for vacation. Approximately 24 hours later, on a Sunday morning, I was sent a reminder that I had not completed the survey for the reference yet. That alone sent me to this website, and makes me reluctant to fill out this survey or any survey for any reference. Time is valuable, and if they don’t respect my time, I’m not going to go out of my way to help.

    • Anne: Don’t be annoyed. Let whoever submitted you as a reference without giving you the courtesy of a heads-up be annoyed. This is akin to getting a robo-call. Who cares?

      • You’re right, Nick. I have OCD tendencies (who doesn’t?) about being on time and not being “deliquent” with tasks. This falls into the category of their problem, not mine.

  54. These automated reference checks are a complete and utter joke. After filling out more than a few of these, I’ve always provided the highest ratings in every category for every former employee who has asked. One survey I filled out even had a pop-up chastising me for doing so. Did I alter any ratings? Of course not.

    If you want a reference from a former employer, pick up the phone and speak with that individual.

  55. I’m also concerned with what happens with the “references” after the fact. I’ve just been asked if I would fill in a Checkster reference. I have never heard of these online reference checks before and am leery both for me and the candidate. Will the third party sell or share the information without the candidate’s knowledge? And according to Checkster’s website, it’s a great source for passive candidates. I’m not looking to be added to someone’s database because I was someone else’s reference!

  56. I just filled put a 10 page online job application, I get a call the next day for a phone goes great and she wants me to come in for group training,etc.AFTER I send this asinine survey to 2 references. I click on the link that takes me to “survey skills” website..where they want me to list 5 REFERENCES and at least 2 former managers.OK..wait a minute..I just filled out a 10 PAGE application which already includes the phone numbers for 2 of my former bosses.Then I read a “sample survey” of what my references will be taking. 20 in depth, personal questions that I’m not even sure my best references are qualified to answer. And my old bosses? I sure as he’ll don’t have their personal cell numbers or email addresses. I found this whole process to be insulting, offensive, and just plain stupid. My former bosses are super busy and barely able to answer the flood of phone calls they get every day. And how uncomfortable and awkward to ask them to take time out fill out this lengthy, detailed survey for an employee they were pretty upset about losing? If you can’t take 2 minutes and call the references or my old bosses I listed on my application, I don’t want to work for you. And tomorrow I’ll be calling and telling them why. I’ll keep moving on until I find a company who still values real human interaction and common sense.