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How to Pass a Reference Check: Top Reference-Checking Secrets to Know About in 2024

Reference-Checking Secrets Employers Don't Want You to Know About


Reference-Checking Secrets to Know About

Let’s talk about reference-checking. Don’t feel like reading? Listen here!

The way we search for jobs has changed.

So, it should be no surprise to job seekers that the way employers conduct reference checks has changed.


Why Do Employers Conduct Reference Checks?

“Reference checks play a critical role in the corporate decision-making process,” says Jeff Shane, President of Allison & Taylor, a reference and credentialing checking firm. “If the job seeker has even one negative reference identified, it is doubtful they will ever hear ‌from that employer. Or they may hear some version of ‘we went in a different direction.”

What Are Backdoor Reference Checks?

The days of completing a paper or online application and listing three references as part of the application are long gone. While employers may still ask for job-related references, they rarely check them until a candidate is in consideration for the job.  

But even that strategy has changed. 

Employers know that the three references most job seekers submit are typically a candidate’s closest co-workers or favorite boss — anyone who will talk positively about them. So, employers have discovered new and unique ways to check references. 


Employers often conduct informal or backdoor reference checks. Backdoor reference checks use methods to dig for information on a candidate other than contacting the provided references. Employers go through backdoor channels — with LinkedIn the most popular channel — to find people who can provide information on a prospective employee.


“Using LinkedIn, you can locate and get in touch with former managers, co-workers, and industry associates,” said Jeff Hyman in the Forbes article Are You Wasting Your Time Checking Candidate References.” He adds:


Front-door references supplied by the candidate will expect your call and typically will speak positively about the person. That’s fine. Backdoor references, on the other hand, will feel less obliged to put a positive spin on their perceptions of the candidate. Their comments can be very revealing. And if any of them are unwilling to talk to you, that speaks volumes too.


The reality is employers are most likely not calling the three references submitted by the job seeker. 


“They are frequently more interested in who the job seeker may not have identified — perhaps a former supervisor or second-level supervisor,” says Shane.


Using LinkedIn, prospective employers can identify former supervisors and co-workers without you ever being aware of it. In addition, prospective employers are more likely to call the job seeker’s former managers than the human resources department. Managers are more likely to offer candid commentary about the applicant. They provide information much more valuable than simply verifying dates of employment through the company’s HR. The reason is simple: HR knows how to respond to reference or background check requests. Managers are not. And some managers have a lot to say. Good or bad. 


Reference Checking Tip: Connect With References Before Submitting


Reference and background checks are an essential part of the hiring process.

So do your best to provide the requested information to the employer. But be sure to reach out to your list of references before submitting them to an employer. Let them know about the role you are applying for and ask them to speak about related experiences that show you can do the job. 

office meeting

Don’t assume that what you think is a strong reference is the best reference. Review your past relationship with each person before submitting their name to a potential employer. Ask yourself, will this person speak highly of me? Will they be able to help? If a reference is quiet or an introvert, they may not say much, which can be a negative even if the information shared is positive. So, assess your references before providing them to an employer. 


“You may also be surprised by the reference you thought would be glowing,” says Karen Young, founder and President of HR Resolutions, a full-service human resources management company. “It is important to talk with your references before giving their names this is a professional courtesy. Do not hesitate to ask them if there is any point of contention you should be aware of but do not ask them to misrepresent their thoughts or cover for you.”


How to Overcome a Negative Reference Check


The reality is people have been fired from jobs. They have bad experiences, and things just don’t work out. If you have had a negative workplace experience, don’t focus on a cover-up or make excuses. Be upfront and honest about it, says Young. It can be to the job seeker’s benefit to reveal potential skeletons in one’s closet. 


“If you have been fired from a prior job or left because you just couldn’t get along with the new management, your interviewer or someone in the new company has probably been there, done that,” says Young.

“Do not be embarrassed by the mistakes you have made — provided you have learned from them. If you have learned from them, use those mistakes to your advantage during the interview.” 

Young elaborated and told the story of the time when, as an HR representative at a previous employer, she said “no” to a VP blocking an action that needed to take place. That did not go over well. 


“This was an absolute career stall for me at that particular company,” says Young. “Now, I could have been all snarky about the whole situation, but frankly, I am a better HR person today having been through that experience.”


Imagine this: An interviewer asks, “So why did you leave Company XYZ?”


Answer one: “Well, my career ended the day I said to the VP that he couldn’t fire that person. He was wrong, I was right, and he couldn’t deal with that. He wouldn’t speak or consult with me again after that — I just had to clean up after him all the time.”


Answer two: “Well, my career kind of stalled after a disagreement with a VP. While I was right on my side, I didn’t handle the situation in the best manner. I said no to him. However, I learned a very important lesson about my responsibilities as an HR professional in that situation. My job was to provide him with options, not to say no. If he needed to make that decision, it was my job to help him make that happen instead of impeding his ability to do his job. It was a bad situation, but a good lesson.”


Says Young: “See the difference? Which candidate would you hire? If you disclose a skeleton and the former employer or supervisor relays the same information, it may serve in your favor.”


Background and Reference Checks: Why Employers Check Social Media Profiles

Employers are increasingly valuing cultural fit in 2024. The reference checking process is also part of an in-depth background check many employers conduct before offering a candidate a job. 

Employers also search and find personal Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok accounts of candidates they are considering hiring. They also search Google to learn more about candidates, using a variety of search terms — not just one’s professional title. 

work desk

Social media accounts and web searches don’t always relate to one’s ability to succeed in a job. Yet, they can reveal much about an individual away from work — which is almost as valuable as learning about a person’s ability to do a job. Company culture is so important across today’s workplaces. Employers review social media profiles to look for any red flags that can reveal reasons ‌a candidate wouldn’t be the right fit. Candidates often reveal a bit about their personal life, hobbies, and interests outside of work in interviews. Social media profiles can confirm observations about a person or that what they say in the interview process is true. When done right, social media can be a boost to getting hired. 


Reference Checking Myths: What Job Seekers Need to Know


Allison & Taylor developed what they call the seven deadly myths of reference checks:


Myth #1. Companies are not allowed to say anything negative about a former employee.


Reality: Many companies may have policies dictating that they can only discuss titles, dates of employment, and eligibility for rehire. Yet, employees at the supervisor and HR levels frequently violate such policies. Providing a reference may be an emotional call for some. How about the boss with whom you had philosophical differences or the supervisor who sexually harassed you? Maybe a boss was just jealous of you? 


Myth No. 2: Most corporations direct requests for reference checks to their human resources departments, and these people won’t say anything bad about me.


Reality: Most HR professionals will follow proper protocol. However, in addition to what is said, prospective employers often evaluate how something is said. They listen to the tone of voice and note the HR staffer’s willingness to respond to their questions — both critical factors. Often heard is “Check this person’s references very carefully,” an ominous statement from any perspective. A human resources department will often divulge if a person is eligible for rehire. Are you?


Myth No. 3: If I had any issues with my former boss, I could simply leave them off my reference list, and nobody will ever know.

Reality: Many companies check references without you even being aware of it. They conduct what is known as a “social security check” to determine where you have worked in the past. They then call the human resources department or office administrator — frequently at each employer — for a reference. 

reference-checking job candidates

This practice is also used to determine if a prospective employee has left any significant places of employment off of a resume — a bad move that you should avoid.


Myth No. 4: I should have my references listed on my resume and distribute them together.


Reality: Treat your references with kid gloves. Only provide them when asked. The last thing you want is several companies that may or may not have a genuine interest in hiring you bothering your references. What’s more, you want to meet with a prospective employer first to leave a favorable impression before any reference checks occur. If you suspect a less than a favorable reference from someone, you can use the interview to address the situation proactively.  


Myth No. 5: Once a company hires me, my references no longer matter.


Reality: Many employment agreements or contracts include a stipulation that says the employer can terminate your employment without cause within a 90-day probation period. Not only are they evaluating your job performance, but sometimes, they are also checking your background and references. 


During this time, your new employer may call your former places of employment, and should the feedback be less than desired, they have the legal right to fire you.


Myth No. 6: I sued my former company, and they are not allowed to say anything.


Reality: They may not be able to say anything definitive, but do not put it past them to take a shot indirectly at you. There have been plenty of instances where a former boss or an HR staffer has said, “Hold on a minute while I get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say about this former employee.” Many employers are uncomfortable hiring someone who has a legal history, perhaps dashing your job prospects. 


Myth No. 7: There is no need to stay in touch with former references.


Reality: As the saying goes — out of sight, out of mind. Honor these etiquette guidelines, and your references should continue singing your praises for a long time. First, call your former boss(es) periodically and update them on your career, asking them to continue being a reference for you. Make sure you thank them for their time. Next, as you move further up the career ladder in your profession or achieve new educational goals, make sure your references stay abreast of your success. As you progress, a reference is more inclined to see you in a positive light. 

Finally, acknowledge your references with a personal thank-you letter or email; offer to take a former boss to lunch or dinner, or send them a thoughtful gift.

Don’t let a reference check hold you back from getting your next job. Follow these tips and strategies to overcome reference-checking secrets employers don’t want you to know about.

Matt Krumrie
Matt Krumrie
Matt Krumrie is a resume expert and freelance writer whose work has been published in over 200 newspapers, websites, and magazines. He has 15+ years of experience writing resumes for clients of all backgrounds, from college grad, to entry-level to mid-career, executive and more. Matt lives in Minnesota.

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