Taking References for Granted: A Bad Plan

Search assignments can at times be very difficult given all the steps in the search process. The time consuming steps include research, sourcing and the initial screening of qualified candidates. There is really not much you can do to move the dial on a search until you have a solid candidate pool to work from. Each step along the way has its purpose and you can’t skip any of the steps or take shortcuts. It never works.

Endorsement Once the candidate pool has been properly vetted, it’s time to prepare to present the candidates to your client. Before we go there, we verify credentials and speak to references who can vouch for Mr. or Ms. Right. That’s where the wheels seem to fall off for some candidates. Well, in some cases (OK) blow up in their face. Remember, these are the references they gave us. Go figure. That’s broken. Sometimes it can actually get worse – if the client decides to contact one or two references…oh well, you get the picture.

I can usually tell where we are headed if a candidate casually blows me off when I request their references. Sometimes you just know they don’t plan to put any effort into this critical part of the search. We coach – but refuse to hand-hold. They sometimes send a quick e-mail or leave a short voice mail message to let their reference know “someone” will be calling regarding a reference. What? That’s it? WOW!!!

No prep. No conversation. No idea who will be calling or what position they are interviewing for. No Nothing! No Way! WAY….That’s job search suicide in my opinion. Without a detailed conversation with their references about the specifics, the references they give us could blow (or has blown) all chances for a candidate to get to YES and an eventual offer. DUMB. Just plain DUMB. UNREAL. It happens.

Candidate’s need to contact each reference and:

  • Tell them why they are calling and ask them for their help
  • Explain the role you are interviewing for and some information about the company/culture
  • Ask for their permission to use them as a reference and discuss why you want this job
  • Tell them who will be calling and when (general time-frame)
  • Thank them for their help and promise to follow-up later
  • Follow-up and provide an update on the status
  • Send them a personal e-mail or a hand written Thank You card for their help

The reference step in the hiring process can sometimes be taken for granted by multiple players in the hiring process including the candidate. Make sure you do your part as a candidate, and you should have much smoother sailing to get the offer.

FOT Background Check

Tim Tolan is a partner at Sanford Rose Associates and specializes in Executive Search in Healthcare IT. He's a closer, and you really don't want to call him unless you're ready to bring out the bazooka to bag some big game. When I started Fistful, I checked four references on Tim - his wife, his kids, his pastor and a client. The references were great, even if it sounded like they were reading from a sheet of paper. I just chalked that up to them being "detail oriented" in their feedback....


  1. R. J. Morris says:

    There have been a few times as I progressed in my career as a recruiting guy that I cut a corner or, more accurately, assumed too much during the evaluation process. Each time I did, I got burned. I agree with you that you just cannot skip any steps or think you have it figured out.
    Also agree that digging hard into references as an employer makes for a better chance of meeting your client’s needs. Just checking the box, as an employer checking references or a candidate prepping his or her references, will kill most deals.

  2. Great advice, Tim! My readers know that I too am a strong advocate for properly asking for a reference, or any career-related advice for that matter! Your excellent post can even be applied when asking for help from mentors.
    As a careers expert, I’ve devoted more time than usual to answering students’ questions, reviewing their cover letters and résumés, and helping them one-on-one find internships and entry-level jobs. However, I’ve noticed people are forgetting their manners when it comes to asking for help!
    I would like to encourage your readers to remember that in the age of the Internet, it’s very easy to let your manners slip and to be cognizant about how your unprofessional behavior with your references affects your “personal brand.” Thus, I would encourage your readers to always remember their manners when asking for a reference. It is also important to know what that reference would say if interrogated by a potential employer. No one likes surprises! Especially when it comes to a potential dream job.

  3. I’m an HR person and references are a sticking point every day. Every day I advise candidates to doublecheck contact info and speak with references to alert them we’ll be calling.
    Every day I have the door slammed in my face when numbers are out of service or referees decline to speak with me, citing company policy or some other reason.
    Several times a week, we decline to hire someone because we couldn’t speak with references.
    Maybe it’s just my industry but candidates need to put a whole lot more thought into their reference list. Your references should not be an afterthought; give very careful consideration as to the people who can best advance your candidacy. Awhile back, I wrote a whole post on what I called 360 References at http://www.kamaletalent.com/landing-the-job-using-360-references/ The right references can be the great finishing touch to your portfolio.

  4. Traveler says:

    Hi- you can also find out what your references are saying before you use them, which is a good idea considering job prospects are so tight right now. Services like allisontaylor.com or reference-check.com will provide you a report that tells you how they respond to inquiry… would give you a better idea of what to expect, and helps you “prep” them accordingly.

  5. Tim Tolan says:

    Great comments by all! Thanks for posting. -Tim

  6. Jamel says:

    What’s up to every one, as I am genuinely keen of reading
    this blog’s post to be updated regularly. It carries good data.

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