Reference-Checking Secrets Employers Won't Tell You

They may seem minor, but references can be a make-or-break element of your job search.

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Job applicants often hand over their references without much thought about what happens behind the scenes. But references can be a make-or-break element of job searching, and it's crucial to understand how they work.

Here are eight things about reference checks that you might not be aware of.

[See our list of the 50 Best Careers.]

1. Policies about not providing references are frequently broken. While some employers have a policy that they won't give a reference beyond simply confirming your dates of employment, in reality this policy is broken all the time. It's usually HR types who adhere to the letter of these policies, while individual managers are often willing to give more detailed references, regardless of what the rule is.

2. Employers can call people outside of your reference list. 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.

3. Employers can ask references anything they want. Contrary to the myth that employers can only ask very targeted and limited questions, they can ask anything at all (as long as it's not about protected classes, like race, religion, disabilities, and so forth).

[See 10 Workplace Myths, Debunked.]

They can and do ask about your work ethic, your attitude, how your work compared with your peers' work, what you accomplished, what your weakest points are, why you left, and whether the employer would be excited to hire you again, among other things.

4. Tone is often more important than words. A good reference-checker pays close attention to tone. If the reference sounds hesitant, uncomfortable, or anxious to get off the phone, those are red flags.

5. A lukewarm reference can be damning. Reference-checking isn't about simply ticking off a series of boxes confirming that you weren't fired for insubordination or theft. Instead, a good reference-checker is looking to see how your past managers talk about your work, and whether they're enthusiastic about you or not. There's a telling difference between "Sure, she did a fine job," and "She's just the best—I wish we could hire her, but since we can't, you must."

6. What your past bosses say matters a lot more than what your peers say. Offering up only peers as references is a red flag that will make an employer wonder why you don't want your past managers contacted. And bosses are the ones we really care about talking to, because they're the ones who can speak to what you're like as an employee in a way that peers often can't.

[See 10 Secrets of a Hiring Manager.]

7. Letters of reference are rarely worth your time. No one puts critical information in reference letters, so employers know they don't count for much. Besides, when hiring managers get to the point when we want to talk to your references, we want to truly talk to them—on the phone, where we can ask questions and probe around. We want to hear the tone of your reference's voice, hear where they hesitate before answering, and hear what happens when we dig around about potential problem areas.

8. You might be able to neutralize a bad reference. If your former boss isn't speaking highly of you, call 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 area, will be familiar with the potential for legal problems, and will probably speak to your old boss and put a stop to it.

Twitter: @AskAManager

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.

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