3 Things Employers Always Ask Of References

employers referencesReferences are often the last step in the screening process before an employer extends an offer. While every company has a different policy on references, most still ask for them. What a reference says, or doesn't say, can sometimes make the difference between getting an offer or not.

Greg Szymanski, director of human resources at Geonerco Management in Seattle, says that when employers contact references, they're looking to determine if the candidate is the person who presented himself in the interview. "Often what's not said is more important than what is said. And hesitations and dancing in a reference's answers are very telling."

The Questions Employers Are Asking

Did he work there, and why did he leave? The standard questions a hiring manager will ask are ones related to your employment. The employer will want to verify that you did indeed work with this reference, the dates of your employment and the reference's relationship to you (boss, peer, etc.). Sean Milius, president of the Healthcare Initiative, an affiliate of global recruiting firm MRINetwork, says employers also want to know why you left. "It is very important that their story matches that of the candidate," Milius says. "If the candidate says it was a 'mutual parting,' but the reference says they were let go or laid off, there will be a problem. The candidate should always be truthful when asked why they left, as the potential employer will check out their story."

How did she perform on the job? After a hiring manager asks the basic questions, she might dig a little deeper into your work performance. Common performance-related questions will cover strengths, areas for improvement, ability to work in a team and biggest accomplishments. Sunil Phatak, director of U.S. recruiting at IT staffing and consulting firm Akraya Inc., says the following questions on both hard and soft skills are also often asked:

  • What would you say is his strongest attributes?
  • How would you describe her interpersonal skills?
  • What would you say motivated him most?
  • Would you rehire or recommend her for rehire?

What's he like to work with? Szymanski notes that while work-performance questions provide important insight, they don't always give a complete picture of the candidate. "If you want to know what the person is like, you have to ask questions that get at that information in a different way." For instance, an employer may ask, "Would you trust the reference to watch your children if you were away on vacation?" Or, "Would you take the candidate to dinner at a nice restaurant with your parents/spouse/significant other?" "The more personal/nonwork-related questions are often useful, not for what the reference says, but [for] what the reference doesn't say and/or the manner in which the reference provides an answer or doesn't answer," Szymanski says.

Who The References Are Matters, Too

Sure, a reference's answers hold a lot of weight, but who the reference is can be just as telling to a hiring manager. If the only references you can provide are your mom, your sister and your best friend, it might raise a red flag with the potential employer.

"Most employers would prefer that a job seeker choose a former manager or supervisor as a reference," Phatak says. "This is because managers are usually able to deliver a relatively unbiased opinion and are much less likely to be swayed into giving a positive referral if one isn't truly deserved. A manager is also a good pick for a reference because a positive referral from him will hold more weight than one from a co-worker who is similarly ranked. Job seekers should also select references who worked with them for at least a year, have a good understanding of their abilities and can attest to their positive attributes."

Setting Your References Up For Success

While you likely won't know the exact questions a hiring manager plans to ask your references, you can still prepare them for the call. The first thing you should do is tell your references that they are one. While that may seem obvious, it's not always done, and the last thing you want to do is have your references be blindsided by the hiring manager's call. Even if you've used certain references in the past, don't just assume they'll be available or willing to serve as one again. The best approach? Ask your contacts first before giving their information to the employer.

Phatak says that if you've done a good job of selecting your references, they'll know you and your work style well enough that they won't need any coaching on the answers. He does suggest that you share the basic job description with your references and refresh them on the position you had and contributions you made while working together. "This is especially helpful if a lot of time has passed since you last worked with them. You don't want your references to be caught off-guard and failing to recall what it is you even did on their team."

Szymanski shares this metaphor to summarize the use of references during the hiring process. "Reference checking is one spoke in the wheel of talent acquisition. If you can get as many spokes in the wheel as you can, your hiring will get better. Reference checking is not perfect, but if used in conjunction with other spokes, reference checking can be useful in verifying/confirming what you already know or breaking ties between two or more closely matched candidates."

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Jason Laughlin

I’v seen this website that specialises in online work references (charref.com). They have a good reference template showing what is normally asked. Plus they also have a way of making it safe for business to give former employees references with out fear of legal troubles.

June 20 2015 at 10:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hello Vetra

I hope you know your Labor Laws--as this is a very poorly written and ignorant article. The questions you say they are asking are ILLEGAL. We are not a Socialist or Communist Country yet. Check with an attorney before you write another article on this subject. Some of those questions you said they ask former employers and references would be illegal in any State.

April 09 2012 at 11:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hold the hiring bus here...the ONLY things that your employer can LEGALLY tell ANYONE who calls in about you is: Did you work there? Yes/no and What were the dates of employment: ______ (fill in the blank).

NO OTHER QUESTIONS can legally be answered if asked. As to your references, don't be silly enough to put down a reference that MIGHT give a negative response. That includes family, so-called friends, and people in the company you worked for. They can lie through their teeth--and they DO, just for spite.

April 09 2012 at 9:48 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to JoanneVLavender's comment

You are correct. While in my management stint, the personnel office (now called HR) gave a tutorial and it was stressed then (and now also) that you can verify that they are or are not employed and dates of employment. Nothing else unless it's for a home loan then it got directed to personnel. A recent lawsuit here in the State of Kentucky happened when a former employer (of a friend) told a prospective employer that the employee had been fired. After a jury trial and court of appeals, it was ruled in favor of the former employee to the tune of $200K in damages against the offending City.

April 09 2012 at 11:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Legally all the references are allowed to answer are the questions to "If you worked for them or possibly what kind of reference they are (if they're a personal refernece or something if not any kind of employer reference)", "The approximate date range(s) you worked for them", and "Would you recommend them" (a YES or NO answer only, no further details are allowed)". All this other elaborate questions and answers are NOT ALLOWED. So you employers out there that do this kind of thing...STOP DOING THAT! Anything beyond basic questions and answers like that are EXTREMELY PRIVATE and PRIVILEGED INFORMATION, and anything revealed can easily be legal grounds for some serious trouble for releasing any other information. Any applications or requests from potential employers asking for things like "Why did you leave a particular employer" are not allowed as well. Potential employers need to stop putting things like this on applications to avoid other legal ramifications.

April 09 2012 at 8:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jrrtolkiennut's comment

Imagine how stupid a company looks when a 25 year employee is described as unworthy of recommendation. The first thing I would consider is: if they're so incompetent, stupid, unworthy, unreliable, blah, blah, blah--then why did they get to work for YOU for 25 plus years?????

These articles are NOT based on facts, and HR people who would follow this advice would be cautioned upon the filing of the first lawsuit and fired upon the first settlement agreement to the injured party.

April 09 2012 at 9:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When a company asks for references, I always assumed that they wanted people who knew you well, both personally and work-related. As far as I know, most states just allow a former employer to give basic information. I filed (and won) an age discrimination suit against a former employer years ago and part of the agreement was that he could not tell any future potential employer about the suit. Well, he did (I guess he was still pissed) and I sued him again. Won again. Not a lot of money, but it was the principal of the thing. You should not be able to screw good people and get away with it.

April 09 2012 at 7:43 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to pj512's comment

Well done, you! Potential employers would do well to understand that age and gender discrimination is against federal law, along with quite a few others (like handicapping conditions). A shrewd HR person would think twice about taking the word of someone on the phone when a resume is staring them in the face.

Imagine how stupid a company looks when telling an HR rep that an employee who has worked for them with excellent evaluations, solid productivity, and long-term employment, should not be considered for employment because they are "unworthy." Imagine how stupid an HR rep looks if he heeds that advice.

April 09 2012 at 9:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

right on, pj.. way to go.. i worked at a place, (name withheld), that was sold to a competitor, and one of the managers was told, "You know, you're really getting too old to do this job". She was not really at the age of some forced retirement age, but she never fought them.. She just said, "OK.. Maybe you're right" .. I would've sued their butts off..

April 09 2012 at 11:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

so it's just as I thought, personal references are pointless when you have a long work record, and you don't tell those you know about work.
I usually like to leave work at work.

April 09 2012 at 7:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I was once told that here in California, all a prospective employer can inquire about, is salary range and tenure, any additional inquiries could leave the former employer with a possible malicious slander suit.

April 09 2012 at 7:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to yvesleyves's comment

All ANY potential employer can legally ask is: did they work there? What were the dates of employment?

That's IT. Anything else is grounds for legal action. If you think you are being sand-bagged, have a good friend call in as a potential employer and then you and the friend make an appointment with competent legal counsel.

April 09 2012 at 9:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sure glad I am retired, as how I pay my bills is none of anybody's business. What should matter is a person's attendance and job performance, nothing more. Sure would be fun to turn the tables on some of these HR people and see how they pay their bills or how many times they have been married or do they wear underwear? Or are they in a gay relationship, as to me, that would be a NO-NO, as if they have no conscience to sleep with another of the same sex, then what kind of scrouples will they bring to the table?

April 09 2012 at 6:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Depending on what state you are in, I believe that there is a limit as to what a prospective employer can ask a former employer. Sometimes former employers will not divulge information for fear of being sued by the former employee. Most important is that a prospective employee can account for any gaps in their employment history. Many employers will now run background checks and/or credit reports to satisfy themselves that a prospective employee will be a good choice. It is unfortunate, however, that an employer would rely soley on a credit report, as these days many people who are out of work have negative things on their credit reports which doesn't mean they will be a bad employee.

April 09 2012 at 5:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
John Lewis

A former employer of mine actually outsourced this.

When you call for references from them, everyone is instructed to give the phone number of the outside firm, so only length of employment and pay are ever given out, and nothing legally actionable can be social engineered out of a direct employee. This was also done when potential creditors called to verify employement such as banks, credit cards, auto loan companies, etc.

April 09 2012 at 5:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to John Lewis's comment

Your credit report cannot be given out to just anyone. There are privacy issues here, as well. If there are a lot of "hits" on your credit report, you must IMMEDIATELY ask for a printout and, if necessary, speak to legal counsel concerning legal action against the credit-reporting agencies for giving out your information to those who don't warrant having it.

It's a privacy issue on your bank records, your deposit history, your spending habits, etc. Unless and until people are ready to FIGHT this nonsense with legal action, it will continue.

April 09 2012 at 10:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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