What is in a Reference?

Mr. Hopwood opened the door to his office and there was a federal agent standing there with her badge. His mind rapidly skipped through his various activities searching for something that might have been considered a federal transgression but came up blank. This was a normal reaction that most people would have to finding an FBI agent in their reception area wanting to “ask a few questions”. Luckily for Mr. Hopwood, he didn’t have a heart condition and the agent rapidly explained that she was there conducting a background investigation for a Top Secret security clearance on a former co-worker of Mr. Hopwood. The co-worker had listed Mr. Hopwood as a reference and she needed to ask him some questions.

The background investigation for a governmental security clearance is the extreme form of reference checking; however, civilian corporations are paying more attention to due diligence in checking references, investigating backgrounds, and drug testing job applicants than ever before. The cost of hiring is rising and the cost of a bad hire can be higher than the investigation costs.

As a job seeker, you need to have your references prepared before you start your job search. Select people who have direct knowledge of your work performance. It is preferable to list superiors rather than co-workers but don’t go so high up the ladder that the reference barely knows your name. People with whom you have worked closely on projects or initiatives will be able to describe your work performance.

Get the permission of references before you list them and be sure to ask what method of communication they prefer for contact. Some people may not mind all their phone numbers listed and some may only want their email listed.

Keep in mind that the person checking references will ask an all-important question to each of your references. Since it is logical that you have listed references that will give you good reviews, hiring managers will ask your references for the names of other workers who have knowledge of your performance. These people are called “developed references” and will be contacted to provide a more objective view of your performance. You can ask your references this same question and know ahead of time who they will name.

In this ever more litigious society in which we live, employers are becoming more wary of providing references, good or bad, and have implemented policies for handling reference checks. Often, workers are instructed to refer any inquiries to the HR department. The HR department will then only confirm dates of employment, position, and eligibility for rehire.

References can make or break a job search. Put some thought into whom you list as references and make sure you have their permission to provide their contact information. Be prepared for employers to conduct extensive background checks as part of the hiring process. If you have skeletons in the closet, they are probably going to make an appearance so you need to be prepared to deal with them.

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