What Employers Ask in Reference Checks

I came across a great article today on U.S. News & World Report about how to survive and thrive when reference checked. It occurs to me that many job applicants may not be familiar with the process from an employer’s perspective and/or what questions might be asked about them.44123573_s

“Today's race for talent is pushing employers to seek out as much information as they can gather about candidates, so they can make the most informed hiring decisions possible. Done right, job references are central to this process.

Employers are increasingly recognizing the importance and value of references. Just look at all the businesses that now rely on the power of recommendations from others. From Angie's List to TripAdvisor to Yelp, the world is more and more attuned to the power of the crowd-sourced peer reference.”

The Basics

Do’s and Don’ts

  1. 360 degrees, please. Have references at the ready that reflect your work ecosystem. Peers, subordinates, clients, supervisors, customers.
  2. Don’t lie ever. Social media will verify their roles and yours. Yes, people offer fake references all the time. Not smart people or people who land the job. I once had an hour-long call with someone who was well versed in the software systems used on the job and complicated project details. Yet, experience told me that something wasn’t right. A social media query later, I located someone who looked like the direct supervisor based on title and dates. A phone call later, I verified that I did have the correct supervisor and that the person lied and offered a fake reference. The rest is history as they say, and so was the job offer.
  3. Connections in common are now your references whether you like it or not. This is what is referred to as a “back door” reference. Allison Green, in reference checking secrets employers won’t tell you said, “While people often believe employers limit themselves to the formal list of references you provide, the reality is that they may call anyone you've worked for or who might know you. In fact, a lot of reference-checking happens behind the scenes when an employer spots a mutual connection and calls that person to ask their opinion of you. The only person who's typically considered off-limits is your current employer.”


Employers may ask any question of a reference that they like. There are many which are considered standard and are often used as the basics. Here is a great list if you are curious.

Beyond what they ask, what do they really want to know?

  • Description of past job duties and experience
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Workplace accomplishments
  • Interpersonal skills

What about the reference’s response?

  • Is there genuine enthusiasm on their part when they talk about you?
  • Do they refuse to answer any questions about your performance or attitude?
  • Does it feel like they are being too over-the-top in their recommendation (i.e., does it feel real to me)?
  • Are they giving only the most minimal answers?
  • Does it feel like they are holding something back?
  • Does something feel off to me, even if I’m not sure what?

Maintaining glowing references and keeping your contact information up to date may make or break that next career move.


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