Here are eight things about the reference-checking process that you might not know:
1. Employers don’t always stick to the references on the list you gave them. Employers may call anyone you’ve worked for or who might know you; they don’t have to limit themselves to the formal list of references you provide. The only person who’s typically considered off-limits in reference-checking is your current employer.
2. “We don’t give references” is often a lie. If your company has a policy against giving references, it’s usually HR types who adhere to the letter of these policies; individual managers are often willing to give more detailed references, no matter what the policy says.
3. References are often highly subjective and opinionated. It’s a myth that past employers can only confirm dates of employment. It’s both legal and common for employers to give detailed references—and a surprising number of references are either lukewarm or bad.
4. It looks bad when a reference you provided wasn’t expecting the call. When you provide your old manager’s number, the potential employer assumes you’ve told her to expect the call. It’s assumed that she’s going to be ready to talk about you, and it doesn’t look great if her first response is, “Who?” You also want to make sure that your references are available, not out of town or otherwise unreachable.
5. You can find out what kind of reference someone is giving you. If you’re worried about what kind of reference you’ll get from your old boss, you can always politely ask whether or not you’re safe using her as a reference. Unless your former boss is crazy or malicious, she’s unlikely to be so committed to thwarting your job search that she’d lie to you about this. But if you don’t trust her to be candid with you, you can have someone else call and do a reference check on you. There are companies you can hire for that, but there’s nothing that says you can’t have a friend do it for you for free.
6. You might be able to neutralize a bad reference. If you’re worried about getting a bad reference, call your old boss and ask if she’d be willing to reach an agreement with you on what she’ll say to future reference calls. Say something like this: “I’m concerned that the reference you’re providing for me is preventing me from getting work. Could we work something out so that this isn’t standing in my way?” Many employers will be willing to work something out with you.
And if you think the reference your boss is providing is factually inaccurate, skip her and go straight to your old company’s HR department. HR people are trained in this stuff, will be familiar with the potential for legal problems, and will probably speak to your old boss and put a stop to it.
7. If all else fails, consider warning prospective employers that the reference might not be positive. The reason you want to give this warning is because it allows you to provide context and framing for what the reference-checker might hear. If you don’t, your potential employer may never tell you that the reference is why they rejected you, so the time to speak up is before they place the call. Ideally, you’d offer up former co-workers, clients, and others who can speak positively about your work, and even old copies of performance reviews if you have them. Sometimes the mere offer of these things will provide the reassurance employers are looking for.
8. Letters of reference are rarely worth your time. No one puts critical information in reference letters, so we know they don’t count for much. Besides, when hiring managers get to the point when they want to talk to your references, they want to talk to them—on the phone, where they can ask questions and probe around. They want to hear the tone of your reference's voice, hear where they hesitate before answering, and hear what happens when they dig around about potential problem areas.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.