What Employers Should Look for in Job References

In today’s job market, competition to find and retain top talent is more prevalent than ever. While all employers take large factors such as education and experience into account, there’s another caveat they should use before making the final decision to hire someone: a candidate’s job references. 

Often times, candidates’ personal and professional backgrounds can look great on their resumes and they can do very well during an interview, but most employers know that they shouldn’t take everything at face value. Checking a candidate’s job reference list is crucial when it comes to validating their qualities that make them capable for the position. So here’s a few tips and tricks every employer should know in order to efficiently and effectively utilize job references in their hiring process. 

Correct formatting 

Make sure the candidate provides their job references on a separate sheet of paper and that the list isn’t just at the bottom of their resume. They should also provide the following information for each reference so that it’s easier for you to identify and connect with: 

  • Full name
  • Current title
  • Company name
  • Business address
  • Contact information (daytime phone, email, cell phone, etc.).

Substantial references

For experienced job seekers, most references should be listed as professionals with whom they have worked closely with. Ideally, candidates should provide 3-5 solid references that are in different categories, such as co-worker, manager, supervisor, boss, etc. This will give you a better idea of their performance at different levels and coming from different perspectives within the company hierarchy.

Unless you have specifically requested them to list personal references, they should not include anyone who are family members or friends.

Confirm job title & employment tenure

This one is a given. Any time you contact a candidate’s past employer, you obviously want to ensure that the candidate isn’t lying on their resume about their experience or where they worked. Their managers should be able to corroborate their job title, the company, and how long they were employed there. 

Description of past job duties and experience

Logically, the next thing to ask the reference is to also corroborate the candidate’s job duties and experience. Ask them to give you a description of what the candidate’s daily tasks were as well as the bigger picture projects they worked on. You want to ensure that the skills, abilities, and knowledge that the candidate states they have were executed by their past positions and are either on point or transferable into the position you’re considering them for. 

Get an idea of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses

Even if you already asked them this during their interview, sometimes the people they work with can give you a more accurate portrayal. There are a few ways you can go about getting this information. You can ask the reference quite plainly, or you can request different scenarios that describe areas where the candidate performed both poorly and exceptionally. You can also ask how the candidate grew or improved during their tenure at the company and what was their biggest contribution before they left.

Look for company culture fit

Although everything thus far about your candidate’s references assure that they’re great for the job, there’s one last thing you should take into consideration: is this person going to fit in with my company? Hiring people who can jive well with your team is probably one of the most important factors of a successful business. People enjoy working with like-minded people. And if they’re happy around their coworkers who they spend 1/3 of their days with, they’re more likely to be productive and produce good work. 

So make sure you ask references about your candidate’s general demeanor and personality. How well do they receive feedback or criticism? Are they good problem solvers? Do they work better in a team environment or autonomously? What were they like when confronted or in conflicted situations? Asking these questions will help you figure out if the candidate will ultimately be a good overall fit. 

Detect red flags

Lastly, during your conversations with the candidate’s references, take note of any red flags that pop up, such as:

  • The reference is completely caught off guard and is unaware that they would be contacted 
  • Negative hesitancy in their responses 
  • They seem to be overly coached and not genuine 
  • They do not seem to know the candidate at all and are giving generic answers 
  • There is a large discrepancy between what the reference is telling you and what you have seen/heard on the candidate’s resume, interview, cover letter, other references, etc.

Although these red flags may seem alarming, make sure you investigate them further before dismissing the candidate completely. Only then should you decide whether or not you want to continue with the hiring process. 

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