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Ask an expert: Job reference FAQs

Posted by | April 1, 2019 | Job hunters, Job interviews, Looking for work

This month we are focused on a crucial part of the job hunt, which is often unfortunately out of your direct control – reference checks.

I’ve pitched a few frequently asked reference questions to recruitment expert, Kirsty McLaren, Director of McLaren Associates – a recruitment firm who specialises in not-for-profit recruiting throughout New Zealand.  Kirsty helps answer those tricky questions and provides some helpful tips to make sure your references help land you your dream job!

Question: What kind of things should I think about when selecting a referee for a job I am applying for?

Typically you won’t get given the option of selecting a referee; for the most part, a prospective employer will ask to speak with your two most recent managers, so the selection is done for you.

However, sometimes they may request a reference from a specific role or organisation that is most relevant to the role you’ve applied for, or you may wish to offer up specific referees for that very reason.

The most effective references are given by people who know you well in a work setting and can comment on your capabilities as well as providing examples to back it up.

It’s important not to burn bridges, and where you can, try to stay in touch with your referees so that you have up to date contact details for when you need them.

An employer will want to know the referee’s full name, the name of the organisation where you worked together, the working relationship – ie, were they your direct manager, and their phone number. You’ll be surprised how often we’re supplied only with a first name and email address!


Question: I’ve been asked to provide my current employer as a referee on a job I am applying for, but I don’t really want them to know I am looking for other jobs, especially if I don’t get the job I am applying for. How do I handle this request?

I am starting to see this more and more frequently, and even have a couple of clients whose hiring policy is to speak with a current manager before finalising a job offer.

It is definitely a tricky situation for a job seeker, and unfortunately, I have seen it go badly on a couple of occasions. I would recommend advising the employer or recruiter that you would be happy to provide your current employer as a reference (assuming you would be!) if and when there is a job offer on the table. From my experience, employers are generally happy to do this – remember, they’re human too, so will likely understand your hesitance!

Offer up one or two other references that they can complete in the first instance and if and when they are ready to progress from there, request a written offer that is subject to a reference with your current employer.

If you genuinely don’t believe you will receive a positive reference from your current employer, then be open and honest with the prospective employer about the situation and the reasons why they might not provide you with a good reference. It’s important not to bag your current employer, but you could use this opportunity to talk about what you’ve learnt from the situation and how you would apply those learnings to a new role within their organisation.


Question: Should I brief my referee before they get called for a reference check?

Yes, absolutely! Not only is it courteous to give them the heads up that they will be receiving a call, it gives them time to reflect on your skills and experience, which will enable them to better comment on your suitability for the position as opposed to doing it off the cuff.

If you can, provide them with a copy of the position description in advance of the reference check, and if their availability is limited, check with them when might be an appropriate time for the employer or recruiter to call.


Question: I keep getting to the final stage of job interviews, but my reference checks always seem to let me down. I have limited work experience. What should I do?

Ask the person that undertook the reference for specific feedback as to why you haven’t been successful in obtaining the position. Ask them if the referee has given their permission for their comments to be shared with you, and if so, request to see a copy so that you can see what has been said about you and the areas in which they are marking you down.

I wouldn’t recommend confronting your referee, but if you can directly ask them for feedback in a respectful manner then go for it.

Another thing to consider is what other information is publicly available about you. If the feedback or comments from your referees seem positive, then is there something else that’s letting you down? For example, social media profiles, old news articles, bad reputation etc. If you get to reference checking stage, or preferably before you even apply for a new role, tighten up your social media privacy settings and do a google search to see what information is out there and how it comes across to others.

And also remember that sometimes you might be a really strong candidate, with good references and a squeaky clean online footprint, but for whatever reason, there is simply a candidate deemed more suitable for that particular role!


Question: Do I still need written references these days?

These days it is much more common for an employer or recruiter to undertake a verbal reference, and my advice to my clients is always to do this wherever possible.

A written reference – or snippets of one in your CV – can be useful to include as part of your job application, however, it is very unlikely that an employer will make a hiring decision on this alone.

Given most prospective employers or recruiters will likely look you up on LinkedIn, you might want to think about asking some of your previous managers, colleagues and stakeholders to write a LinkedIn recommendation for you – that way the whole world can immediately see how fabulous you are!


Question: How do students/young professionals ask for references when they don’t have much experience?

Whilst work references are preferred, there is nothing wrong with providing a teacher, lecturer or sports coach as a referee, as long as they know you well enough to comment on how great an employee you will make!

Failing that, think if there is someone else that may have observed your work ethic. Have you done volunteer work? This not only counts as experience but gives you valuable references. Have you done odd jobs, like babysitting or gardening? Use your happy customers as referees!


Question: I’ve applied for so many jobs over the past year and feel bad that my referees keep getting asked for references. What should I do?

A thorough reference can take up to thirty minutes, maybe more, so be mindful of this when you are applying for roles. I’ve worked for agencies who reference every candidate that gets put forward for a role – whereas at McLaren we just reference the final preferred candidate(s).  If you are working with a couple of different agencies it may be that your referees get called multiple times.

A good referee is your champion, so they shouldn’t mind providing a reference for you more than once if needs be; however if you feel like you’re bothering your referees too much, perhaps you need to be more selective in the roles you’re applying for and think carefully about your motivations for doing so.


Thanks Kirsty for your insights, knowledge and sharing!