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The Role of References in Background Checks

Date Published: July 02, 2024 | By Suraiya Sarwar

“Please provide at least three professional references.”

That line has become a given in job postings and applications across virtually all industries and roles. And for good reason. Understanding how well an employee might fit in an organization, and how well they might perform their job duties, is important to HR leaders, recruiters, and hiring managers. What better way to understand this fit than by seeking information from past employers, managers, and colleagues?

Candidates know (or should know) that they will be asked to provide references when applying for a job. The information below can help candidates be well prepared to provide information designed to maximize their chances of landing their desired job.

What References Should I Provide to Prospective Employers?

When asked for your references, employers want to gain access to individuals who can speak to your professional expertise and abilities. You should provide three to five professional references (former managers and supervisors, colleagues, business partners) who can do that. Don’t provide personal references (like family members, or friends) unless specifically asked to do so.

Should I Let My References Know I’ve Provided Their Name?

That’s always a good idea. You don’t want your references to be taken off guard if they’re contacted—and the chances are good that they will be. Giving them a heads up also offers you an opportunity to provide some direction in terms of the type of information you hope they will share. Let them know about the job you’re applying for, the company, and what you believe will be important for them to share. “I hope you’ll allow me to provide you as a reference for a new X positive at Y company. In this role, I will be doing Z. It would be great, if you’re contacted, to share with them information about the ABC project I was involved with and my ability to work well with colleagues in other departments, even during tense situations.”

What Information Can Former Employers Share?

The short answer: both factual and subjective information about your employment with them. It’s common for companies to share factual information like job title, dates of employment, and beginning and ending salaries. But, they can also share their subjective assessments—your strengths and weaknesses, whether you were a “good” employee and, often, whether they would rehire you.

While organizations and their representatives can’t share discriminatory information or make false statements about your service, there is a wide range of information they can share, and they can share information beyond the questions your prospective employer will ask.

Still, you should also know that many employers are concerned about the potential risk of revealing information during a reference check that might cause liability for them. Consequently many have policies that prohibit releasing any information beyond job title, dates of employment, and salaries.

Can Prospective Employers Contact People Not on My Formal List of References?

Again, employers are often concerned about potential risks related to reference checks. Many will stick to the names that you’ve provided. However, if you haven’t provided a specific name for a company where you’ve worked they may reach out to that company to gather the information they need.

Keep in mind, also, that HR professionals, recruiters, and hiring managers have their own networks and sometimes these networks can be quite broad. They may have friends or colleagues who’ve worked at the organizations where you’ve worked and may call upon these connections to get additional information about you. It’s not illegal to do that; we all use our networks to gather information of various kinds. Unless the information gathered is discriminatory or false, it’s fair game as part of the evaluation process.

Will I Have an Opportunity to Correct/Explain Information Gathered?

It depends. While allowing candidates the opportunity to review and respond to information gathered about them is a best practice in many HR/recruiting circles, not all employers do this with reference checks.

Asking that question during the application process could raise red flags for an employer. The best approach is to provide references from your most recent jobs and to proactively explain any potentially negative information that might be shared with an explanation.

 

References play a very important role during the talent acquisition process. They’ve become a pervasive part of the methods companies use to help them thoroughly evaluate candidates to make an informed decision about who will best fit within their organization in terms of both culture and productivity. Don’t leave any aspect of this process to chance. Think carefully about the references you will provide, check in with them first to get their permission for serving as a reference (and to suggest the information that would serve you the best), and—importantly—following up with them to thank them for their input and to provide an update on your job search.

While you can’t entirely control the process or keep negative information from being shared (if there’s any to share), you can impact and improve the positive power of these references to position you in a good light.