Helping hiring managers avoid reference-check roadblocks

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Reference dilemmasBy Robert Half International 

As a job seeker, the reference-checking portion of the hiring process seems simple and straightforward. You provide the names of three to five people who can vouch for your awesomeness as an employee, the hiring manager calls them, your contacts say wonderful things, and you get hired.

Easy and painless, right?

Not always. From suddenly unreachable former bosses to company no-reference policies, you can run into some challenges when it comes to your testimonials. Here are tips for overcoming several common reference-related dilemmas:

Q: I didn’t get along particularly well with a former manager. I produced quality work during my many years at that job, but I’m still concerned about what she’d say about me if contacted. What should I do?

A: Assuming you didn’t quit in a blaze of glory, you have several options. First, recognize that unless your old boss is a vindictive menace, she’s probably not out to destroy your career.

Rather than making assumptions, why not go straight to the horse’s mouth? As awkward as it might sound, consider calling your former manager to graciously ask if she’d be a reference and, if so, what she’ll say about your tenure. Be polite, friendly and appreciative of her consideration of the request. With any luck, you’ll find your worries were unfounded.

If you receive a brusque or tepid response, however, you’ll need a Plan B. While it’s less than ideal — employers typically want to speak to direct supervisors — reaching out to peers or other managers at the company is a possible workaround.

If that’s not feasible, you’ll have to go without a reference for that prior job. If the hiring manger asks why, offer a quick, diplomatic overview of the situation without badmouthing anyone. Make a point to mention the positive relationships you’ve built and maintained with your other references.

Q: One of my references isn’t getting back to the hiring manager. What can I do?

A: Contact the reference and ask if he is able to return the hiring manager’s call within two business days. Note how much you value the person’s endorsement and how badly you want the job.

If the individual obliges, inform the employer that the reference will be in contact shortly and apologize for the delay. If after 48 hours the person still hasn’t contacted the hiring manager, have another reference at the ready.

This situation underscores why it’s critical to touch base with references ahead of time to verify their availability and willingness to assist you. If a reference is on vacation, preparing for an overseas business trip or in the middle of an all-consuming project, you might think twice about listing him for this specific opportunity. Another alternative is to ask what times he is available and include that information along with the person’s name and contact information.

It’s to your benefit to make the reference checker’s task as fast and frustration-free as possible. Fair or not, the speed at which a reference responds can reflect upon you. In fact, it can cost you the job if a hiring manager is in a rush to fill the position.

Q: What can I do if my former employer has a no-reference policy?

A: Your options are limited, but you’re in good company. Hiring managers run into this all the time. Due to legal concerns, many organizations have policies restricting the information they’ll disclose about former employees. A lot of human resources departments only confirm dates of employment.

One option is to ask if your former boss would write a recommendation. (Sometimes, there are fewer restrictions about this.) Another possible solution: List a former manager or colleague who has left the company.

As a safeguard, it’s smart to always ask potential references this question: “Is there any reason you might not be able to serve as a reference for me?”

Q: I just graduated from college and have no work experience in my chosen field. Who can I name as references?

A: While employers are well aware recent graduates have minimal real-world experience, that doesn’t mean they won’t ask for references. Hiring managers still want third-party assurances you’d make a good hire.

An internship supervisor, the coordinator of a volunteer organization or your manager at the campus coffee shop might not be able to wax poetic about your technical skills, but they can vouch for your work ethic, professionalism and interpersonal abilities. Likewise, a mentor or favorite professor can speak to your critical-thinking skills, ambition and attention to detail.

When selecting references, keep in mind that credibility and objectivity count. Your mom might sing your praises like nobody else, but her glowing recommendation won’t exactly come as a surprise. It’s better to provide just one or two references than it is to stock your list with family members or friends who lack impartiality.

Q: I lost touch with a great reference from early in my career and haven’t been able to verify his contact information. Should I still list him?

A: No. While it’s easier to track down former colleagues today thanks to social networking sites, some people go off the proverbial grid. If you couldn’t reach this once-valuable reference, there’s no reason to expect the employer will have better luck.

The bigger question is if this person from your past should even be a reference. You want references who’ll speak knowledgably and in detail about your current skills and abilities. If, for example, you’re a finalist for a management role, having someone attest to the fact you were a superb intern a decade ago won’t be helpful.

This is not to say you can’t selectively use highly influential and well-connected references from years ago. You just need to keep them apprised of your career progression.

Finally, be aware reference checkers aren’t confined to your list. Some hiring managers will ask your references for additional people to speak with. Others might probe around LinkedIn and Facebook.

You obviously can’t warn every member of your network that a would-be employer might reach out. What you can do is carefully monitor whom you connect with online, familiarize yourself with privacy controls and think twice before torching any bridges. You never know whose endorsement you might need down the line.

Robert Half International is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 400 staffing and consulting locations worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit For additional career advice, view our career bloopers video series at or follow us on Twitter at 

  1. My husband has applied for a job and the company is doing a background check, they have asked for a 10 year work history. One of the companies he worked for has went out of business. How can he get his dates of employment?

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