References: Are They Really Being Checked?

You’ve been through all the interviews. This is the job you want, now you are certain. They seem to think likewise and put an attractive offer on the table.

Great! You are almost there!


Yes, there is just one more hurdle to jump and it can change a lot… References.

Although references are very popular part of the recruitment process, I know that some people don’t feel comfortable with them. So here are the answers to references related questions I get most often.


What are the references and how they are checked?

References in the interviewing process are essentially testimonials on your professional performance, behaviour and style given by the people you worked with. They are most often gathered in a short phone conversation, although sometimes also via email.

References are taken by the future employer or by the recruiting agency.

Whether it’s a call or email, there is a set of questions that guide the discussion. Reference questions cover a variety of aspects: from confirming that you worked in a place, time and role that you claim you worked, to your achievements, working style, areas to improve etc.

What is the purpose of checking references?

There are two goals of taking references.

First is to confirm the facts you presented in the interviewing process.

Second is to take an additional perspective on your working style and performance. It’s about hearing from somebody you have seen you in action day by day what is their opinion on you. How did they like working with you? Were there any issues that can raise a red flag for the future employer? Anything to keep in mind to help you settle into your new role?  

When are references taken?

References are usually taken at the final step of the recruitment process, most often when the offer has been already made. Their purpose is to serve as a final confirmation that the selected candidate is the right one.

Many employers make offers to candidates subject to references check. It means that if anything comes up that contradicts claims you’ve made to your experience or your behaviour, they can withdraw the offer.

In few cases, there might be a need to take references earlier. It happened for example in one of the processes I ran last year. There were two candidates that the firm considered for the role. Their credentials were very similar and it was difficult to make a decision who should be offered the job. The client asked to gather references to get even more insight into the working style, communication style and management approach of both. And this information helped them to decide on one of the candidates ultimately.

Are references always checked?

No, not always. It is a decision of the future employer. Some do it routinely. Some don’t do it at all or skip it in selected cases. What I see in my work is that the higher the position at stake, the more often thorough references check is done.

Can I refuse to give the reference contacts?

Yes, you can, but keep in mind that this will affect your chances in the recruitment process. If you refuse, the obvious question will be: why? Is there something you want to hide? If so, maybe you are not the right candidate after all.

Remember that you can select people you point as your references. While the company you’re speaking to may ask for most recent contacts, they can’t force you to give them a number to your current boss. Especially if you haven’t decided on the offer yet.

Think of people you worked with as recently as possible that you can trust. Maybe a colleague or ex-boss who moved to a new company?

Should I tell people I mentioned them as reference contacts?

Yes, you should. It’s not only out of politeness but also to help get the process smoothly.  Some people will not feel comfortable with giving references (although it’s rare) so always check they are ok with it.

Also letting your references contacts know means that they won’t be surprised with this phone call or email.

How about written references?

Always take written references when your company offers them when you’re leaving. They will serve as a confirmation of time and roles you’ve worked there.

Most firms that take references as part of the recruitment process will still want to speak to somebody. To breathe some air into this paper information and to get insight on the soft side and nuances.

Can recruiters check references behind my back?

Ehm, that’s a tricky question. They shouldn’t but they can. References taken behind your back will not be presented as part of the official recruitment process. They can affect your chances though. If you start interviewing and something raises recruiters suspicions, they may speak confidentially to people in their network to gather more insight.

Once I had a situation when a story of the interviewed candidate didn’t add up. The project management stories were too smooth and lacking detail. I also came across another candidate claiming to be doing the same role, at the same time. It was strange. I reached out to two people in my network who used to work in the same firm as the candidate. They confirmed that the person I spoke to wasn’t in fact in the role she claimed, but in a one reporting to it. I called the candidate to confront her with this information. She admitted “not being precise in her presentation”.

Do you have any other questions regarding references checking? Or maybe you’ve already been through this process? What are your thoughts?

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