References, Schmeferences

One more in a series of wake-up calls for recruiting ; )

Most recruiters have an opinion about references…they are valuable or they are not…they check them or they don’t. And identifying the right references to include with your application is usually a ritual that every job seeker has to go to at some time in their career. Well, I have an opinion on references…surprised? I think that the people that feel there’s no value in reference checking aren’t trying hard enough.

Think “everyone can find 3 people who can say something nice about them”? Wrong. Witness the candidate whose only references are “personal” references. Even after several years in the industry. Think that’s a red flag? Yup! (Advice for job seekers: It’s OK if you don’t include a reference from your current employer because they don’t know you are looking, right? But maintain those relationships with previous employers. You should have references from at least the previous two and they should be people that you reported to, if possible. If you don’t have those work references on your application, the recruiter will wonder why. There may be a reason…be prepared to explain, if you need to.)

Think that nobody will give you the real scoop on the person because of company policy? You aren’t listening hard enough. It’s a good sign if they return your call. It’s a good sign if they say “I’d really like to help you out with information on Sue…we miss her”. Most will give you some info with a little friendly coaxing (“darn, I really want to get this offer out to Sue, but I need to check one more reference…can I call you at home tonight?”) There’s a  lot to be said for reading between the lines too.

Still checking titles and dates of employment on people? How fun and totally beside the point of reference checking. Their payroll department can do that. The single most important question recruiters should be asking: “would you rehire Sue if you could and why?”

Oh yeah, and also, “can we stay in touch?”. Because good people know good people. Hello…your candidate just gave you a list of people they respect and trust. Um, yeah. those are called leads. So why aren’t you checking references again?

Comments (11)

  1. G. Diggity Style says:

    First of all, lots of companies have a standing policy to refuse to give references due to legal liabilities. Secondly, I’m not comfortable asking many of my previous supervisors for a reference because we had a relationship of mutual respect and trust. What do I mean by that? Your comment "a list of people they respect and trust … those are called leads" makes me sick to my stomach and is probably the number one reason people don’t take references seriously. They are *references* not *leads* and it is insulting and demeaning to chase down people I trust looking for job leads. I cant believe you publicly advocate stabbing your candidates in the back by abusing their trust in you. UGH. That’s why I put "references on request only" and even then only give them out very rare occasion.

  2. Walt says:

    Diggity Style – you’re so wrong! Heather is so right about reading between the lines and your post is screaming at me. That combined with an irrational reluctance to provide professional references are all I need to know exactly what to do with your resume.

  3. Adwait Ullal says:


    I am a contractor and I was in agreement until the last paragraph. In my line of business, I have been burnt many a times by recruiters wanting those references up front (even before an interview with the client) so they can turn those into *leads*. That I think is regretful.

    – Adwait

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    Diggity- A list of people you respect and trust are your references. FOr recrutiers, names and numbers of contacts in the industry are called leads. I’m not talking about a heavy handed attempt to recruit the person, just an offer to stay in touch and network. If there’s someone in their network that is looking, you want them to refer the person to you. Likewise if they decide to look in the future and there’s nothing wrong with that. Any good recruiter looks at any conversation with a credible person in the industry as an opportunity to network. It’s just a reality. As far as candoidates not taking referneces serioiusly, I think they need to if their potnetial employer is asking for them. If it’s important to the employer that you want to work at, it should be important to you. And if you think it’s demeaning to look for job leads, although that wasn’t what I was talking about, I guess you and I disagree. It’s simply called networking. And more people get jobs this way than by applying to web sites. Not quite sure how I am stabbing candidates in the back…you seem very angry.


    Adwait-I totally agree with you. I don’t think that you should provde references up front. Those reference checks should only be taking place on candidates that make it through the interview process. So I think it’s OK to make clear to your recruiter that you don’t want your references checked unless you make it to a certain point (through the interviews or maybe to an offer stage). Totally reasonable. The point that I was trying to make is that if you are having a conversation with a reference that happens to sound good, stay in touch with them and make them part of your network. I don’t think there’s anything regretful about that.

  5. Henry Boehlert says:

    I have to second G. Diggity Style.

    AFAIK Microsoft itself does not give references, so I find it odd it’s asking for them.

    Even if only for leads. That’s not quid pro quo.

    Walt, you’re a true professional!

  6. Nicole Simon says:

    Please correct me if I am wrong – as I understand, the reference you are talking about is something a person writes about me and as example is willing to answer your call and and answer questions, right? The thing I can see on linkedin, only more formal on a sheet of paper.

    If I would apply now for a job with you, I would have to start collecting such references for the first time in my life. I would not even have a clue how such should really look like.

    And most of the people I know of and work(ed) with would give me an akward look if I’d asked them to. Because personal references are not usual in the German workculture. There is only one person I would think of – and that is a guy who does work now at a american company.

    I witnessed him saying "i can give you a reference every time you like" to a collegue of mine. The look on her face was like he had made a sexual approach.

    What is usual to get work references, but they are made by the hr department and in no way references by the people who I worked for. They are of course in most of the cases submitted to HR from the person I worked for, but that is about it.

    "Miss Simon has worked here, done that, some social skill bla bla why you leave or if you are made leave bla whish her good luck" is the usual work reference thing.

    You usually request an internal work reference if a change in command does take place. But then again, it is written as a statement as if from the company.

    Also, those work references are not allowed to be negative over here and you only have a right on them if you leave the company. And third, they are in German.

    So, bad news on the front of references over here. Which leads me to the question: How do you handle such things? 🙂

    What would you expect from a person applying from a foreign country on this behalve?

    Which kind of translation is requested – has it to be testified?

    How open are you for the fact, that you are asking for a cultural thing?

    Yes I know the saying, ‘if you want to play in Redmond, do as the Softies do’, but if you are just asking of "I want it exactly this very american way" this is a signal to me as well about the company. 🙂

  7. Mary says:


    In "recruiter speak", I think the problem with providing references to recruiters and therefore giving that recruiter the ability to network with your references is that networks are important to candidates too.

    To techs, their referees are in all cases part of their professional network and in some cases also personal friends. And while that network (the professional one, not the friendship one) does not have the same day-to-day importance as a recruiter’s network, it has ongoing importance in the candidate’s career and has particular importance when they’re job hunting. Further, just like a good recruiter’s network, it’s not a casual or throwaway thing: the candidate wants to preserve it for future job hunts and for their career in general.

    Therefore, a candidate is reluctant to accept that a recruiter "just does" things like attempt to leverage their network and they have to just put up with it. Their network might be more important to them than any single job (especially if it contains personal friends). They don’t want it damaged by a clumsy attempt by a recruiter to network with their good friends. (And I’m sure you know there are clumsy recruiters about.)

    So that’s where the reluctance to let recruiters do what they will with the candidate’s references comes from. I actually feel pretty positive about your particular descriptions of networking: it sounds like you try and have a mutually beneficial relationship with people in your network and that you network for the medium/long term rather than for next week’s hire. But I don’t think that this kind of professionalism and courtesy is what techs are accustomed to from all recruiters, and therein lies the reluctance to expose our network to recruiters.

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    Henry-I’m not aware of any such policy. I don’t think there’s anything odd about asking for references. Seems like standard practice to me. I’ve always provided them for any job I’ve applied for. It’s interesting that you mock Walt’s professionalism. Did you look at Diggity’s message? It’s OK for people to argue if they agree with you but not if they don’t? Interesting.

    Nicole-I suspect that the employment environment is different here in the US than in Europe. We just ask for the name and number of someone that the candidate has worked with in the past that can give some feedback on the person’s background. If we were interviewing a candidate that had worked somewhere where references aren’t an accepted paractice, we would talk to you about it and figure out what is appropriate under the circumstances. It’s really not very formal.

    Mary-you make good points. I guess people think they might be getting the hard sell kind of a phone call and that’s not what it’s like. It’s a pretty comfortable conversation and I would never try to force someone to do anything. But when I’m checking a reference on a candidate (for me, just prior to or after an offer…when I used to make offers), I obviously already think that the candidate is pretty great. So asking their references if they know more people like the candidate and telling them to feel free to share my contact info with anyone that they know who is looking is a natural extension of that conversation. It’s really never perceived as a negative phone call by the person giving the reference. The point of the call is the reference and the ability to potentially network is an extra benefit.

    I definitely don’t encourage or condone "clumsy" recruiter bahavior (hence my diatribes on bad recruiter networking). I guess I still don’t see the damage done by asking the referring person to feel free to share their contact info with anyone they know is looking. It’s been very well received (and acted upon) by people I have spoken to. What is the perception of networking that people find so horrible? Let me just say this…I am ALWAYS networking.’s how recruiters think. Everyone is a possible connector. There’s no ill intent.

    Also, just wanted to clarify that I don’t recruit "techs". So there may be a different impression of recruiters and networking in that space. Marketing folks tend to be pretty comfortable with the concept. Anyway, your points were good ones and I’m glad I got the chance to clarify some of the things you mentioned. I don’t recruit on open positions so there’s really is no networking for next week’s hire. Let me just say that what I am endorsing is networking by professional, responsible recruiters that "get it". The rest…the *bad* recruiters aren’t going to change because of anything I write in this post ; )

  9. ScottMagoon says:

    Heather, I agree with your distinction between personal and managerial/supervisory references. I suspect most people would be willing to offer up three of their co-worker friends as references, but may hesitate at their former boss. People often leave jobs for various reasons that don’t leave their former manager with the best impression – a conflict, a difference in expectations, lack of challenge or opportunity for advancement, etc. The manager may well have felt that hiring Sue in the first place was a good move, but now that she has left why would I “rehire” her? Maybe your experience here shows that people can be objective and not let the difficulties caused by the employee leaving affect a reference for the future employer. I’d like to think that’s the case, but I am not so sure.

    I also think that if one is having trouble with appropriate references that it may already be too late. We should manage our careers so that there are always people who we have impressed and who would be willing to vouch for us in the future – internally or externally. Even if your former manager was someone you never want to associate with again, much less allow an opportunity for revenge on you with a bad reference, then there must be other coworkers that can provide the appropriate kind of reference. Look at major projects you’ve worked on. Was there a project manager who can speak to your involvement? Did you rescue a coworker from a jam or fill in at the last minute on any critical task? Maybe a former peer who has been promoted can speak authoritatively about you. Heather, does the level, or title, of the reference carry much weight?

  10. Nick says:

    I’m not sure I totally agree with you here Heather. I do agree on many fronts, but I’ve done so much reference checking that these days, most companies (at least larger ones) don’t allow anyone in management other than HR to answer the questions.

    Additionally, in the wake of the dot-com’s many people have disappeared, whether moving across country, the ocean or some to the moon (or at least so it seems). Consequently, for me for example, there’s no way I can stay in touch with them. And believe me, I’ve tried.

    So, now I’m trying to backtrack and find as many people I can to write a reference; something I can copy however many number of times I can and provide them instead. So far, all my references have really liked this idea as opposed to being contacted at various points in our and their lives to remember someone they worked with 9 years ago…

    But that’s just my 2 cents.

  11. HeatherLeigh says:

    Scott-I agree with all your points. Not every former manager is going to be totally professional, but the majority are. At least the ones I’ve spoken with. But, yes, finding another responsible, credible person who has first hand knowledge of your work is also good.

    Nick-sounds like you are doing the right things. I guess it also makes sense how long you have stayed at each employer. You mention the dotcom boom and people may have moved around a lot and lost touch (though I urge people to maintain those relationships if at all possible). I also think about how long I’ve been at Microsoft. I could provide the names of a number of previous managers here, but lookiung back 10 or 12 years, I think those contacts are less relevant.

    So I guess there are a lot of judgement calls involved ; )