In asking for employment references on the job application counter-productive?

If I’ve learned one thing lately, it’s the people will try to talk you out of something that they, themselves fear. Recently, a friend tried to talk me out of my fitness routine because he thought I didn’t “need it”. When I told him that it made me feel good, he said I looked fine (I’m not joking). He’s a really nice guy and a good friend, but I couldn’t help thinking that his opinion on my exercising had more to do with him than me. I think that seeing others do something for themselves hits close to home for a lot of us. It forces you to question yourself: “should I be doing that too?” and “I’m not doing that…does that mean they don’t want to be like me?”. Asking myself those questions is what got me started working out again in the first place. They can be really productive questions to ask yourself if you are willing to go there (by the way, my friend didn’t mean anything…he just speaks what he thinks and his perspective on the topic was influenced by the fact that his lifestyle is very different than mine). There are other people that, when you tell them you are working out, will immediately start rattling off the reasons why they don’t. People are funny (and kind of self-involved…um, myself included I guess given how much time I am willing to spend at the gym and talking about my life here).

Which is why I can’t help but wonder (in my best Carrie Bradshaw voice): why do we ask for employment references on job applications when the fact that the candidate asking a co-worker for a reference may set the co-worker on a campaign to convince the candidate to stay? The co-worker starts thinking “hmm, why don’t they want to stay here with me?”, “should I be looking for a new job too?”.

Filling out the job application is too early in the process to be asking for references. At the early stages of the recruitment cycle, the candidate has little invested in the process; having not yet interviewed, not yet feeling a person-to-person connection with the team members, not knowing much about the group/business/role. By asking for the reference information up front, are we basically asking the candidate to let someone talk them out of leaving at a point in the process where the candidate hasn’t necessarily decided they want the position? And with plenty of time to convince the candidate to stay while the candidate goes through the interview process?

I realize that most candidates will not ask their direct manager for a reference up front, signaling their intention to leave the company. But even asking a co-worker or former manager for a reference could involve additional personalities with different agendas and personal perspectives to weigh in on the opportunity. I’m not sure that this often leads the candidate to re-evaluate the new opportunity, but it certainly is an unnecessary risk.

I suspect that recruiters do themselves a disservice by asking for references before they are prepared to check them. Hiring companies would be better served by selecting their talent and getting them good and excited about the opportunity before they send them back to their employer to ask for a recommendation.

Does anyone think differently about this? It’s such a standard practice, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Comments (9)

  1. Lauren Smith says:

    I’m currently thinking about references and all sorts of job-switching things lately.  Obviously it’s a difficult proposition to ask my current manager for a reference since, as you say, it signals my intention to leave the company which is something that would be very difficult for him to swallow at this point in time.

    So what type of reference is good?  What type is better than another?  I have several old co-workers who now work at Redmond, so would those be better (more weighty) character witnesses than someone at another company?

    I just asked someone at MS to be one of my references this morning, actually.  We worked together for several years, several years ago.  Is that too long an interval for a reference to be a useful measure?

    Anyway, it’s a lot to think about for little old me.  I’m confident in my abilities, confident in my experience and skills, and confident that I can convey and engender that confidence in my interviewers.  But the reference issue has always been the one area that I haven’t ever been very confident about.

    I’m bookmarking this thread.

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    Lauren- first off, let your recruiter know that you aren’t comfortable providing a reference at your current company until you give notice. They have to respect that situation.

    It’s always ideal to provide the names of people you have reported to in the past, so those are the best references…folks higher than you in the chain of commend. Peers are fine if you need extra references and yes, if you are applying to a company and someone who works there now worked with you before, byall means, use their name as a reference. Just make sure it’s someone who will give you a great reference. Their loyalty to their current company means they have dual loyalties. So go this route if you know they think you are fabulous.

  3. Rose says:

    Heather, I hadn’t thought about references from the perspective you shared today….but as a sometime job seeker, I really prefer not to share references up front. Why? It’s just too soon.

    There’s a lot that happens between an initial application and a job offer…that first phone or face to face interview may eliminate a candidate right off the bat. Or, the candidate may decide the company is not right for them.

    The time to request, and share, references is after the second meeting when company and job seeker have a better idea of whether it’s a fit — and hopefully, a level of trust established.

  4. Gymbo says:

    When one fills out the online Microsoft application, it specifically asks for (3) references — preferably current and former supervisors.  Correct?  So Microsoft requests references very early in the process.

    BTW, does Microsoft really follow-up with the references listed?  Does this happen before OR after a job offer is given?

  5. HeatherLeigh says:

    Oh yeah. I should have made clear (or at least should make clear again) that everything you see here is my personal opinion. I’m really just asking the question. Most companies will ask for them up front because they want ti gether all the info at the same time. That doesn’t mean that you can’t decline to provide them and let you recruiter know that you will share them at a later time.

    When I was a line recruiter and a candidate didn’t fill out the references section of the application, I was always OK with letting the candidate provide those at a later time. I haven’t been in line recruiting since we moved over to electronic applications, so I can’t tell you what the online interface looks like, but it would be a good idea for me to take a look, so I will.

    When I checked references, when I did it depended on the situation. Some candidates didn’t want them done until after an offer was extended. My opinion is that you call them as soon a) the candidate is comfortable, b) you know you want to offer the candidate OR you need the information to make a hiring decision. I’d have to check with individual recruiters to see how they handle it.

  6. martin snyder says:

    I agree with Heather on this one 100%.   It happens with solutions too- many potential buyers want to speak with references early in the process- before we really know each other yet.  

    It’s always amazing to me how our clients feel about time spent on references with our prospects.  Many volunteer, and they are happy to help, and truly aim for objectivity.  We respect their time by trying to only send them people prepared to ask worthwhile questions on subjects actually involved with their goals, which means well along in the sales cycle toward our mutual understanding.  

    Otherwise its just ritual- with thousands of end-users, we can find people to chat the day away about how wonderful we are, as can other vendors and even modestly situated individuals if the need arises.   Direct questions on  relevent nuts and bolts issues are much more helpful.

    Legally and otherwise, its easier to talk about software than other people, but the idea remains the same.  


  7. just a feedback says:

    I think @ times companies and hiring managers give too much importance to references.

    References may not have much time (or interest beyond a point) to answer all sorts of questions. At times even previous managers may not know everything about the candidate.

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    just a feedback-I think they will make the time for people that did good work for them. I’ve gone out of my way to provide positive references and evangelize the backgrounds of folks that I think are really strong.  It’s just one piece of feedback that hiring teams need to consider. Bad references are a red flag though. So if you don’t have someone like that who will gush about your skills (preferrably a previous manager) you need to find someone. They can provide some constructive feedback as well, but the balance needs to tip heavily toward the positive.

    Some people say that everyone can find 3 people tp say something nice about them but I will tell you that this isn’t necessarily so and I’ve had many phone calls where there were less then glowing reviews that made me concerned, mostly for the personal awareness of the candidate that put the person on their list of references.

  9. Interesting observation.  I rarely ask my candidates to provide references until the final stage of the interview process.  What I have founf in 90% of the cases though is that they provide references from former colleagues.  These people may in fact be quite excited for the candidate’s opportunity at Yahoo!  When dealing with premier brands like Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! you may find that references are all to happy to assist in helping the candidate see the opportunities in front of them.