Posted in Business Articles

Checking References on a Potential Employer

We’re all familiar with the final section of most job applications where we’re asked to list 3-5 professional references for the potential new employer to call in a final attempt to verify what interviews, demonstrations, and assessments have said about you…or expose something otherwise hidden that would keep them from offering you the job.

Have you ever had a potential employer offer you his/her references to check? You might think with sites like Glassdoor that you don’t need them, that you can find out what you need to know about working for that company or even that individual. But the ability to directly probe a human who has free rein to speak to both successes and failures is invaluable.

I was recently offered employer references during an interview at the same time he asked for my candidate references. Big points in his favor simply for offering; even more for following through with three names and contact information and written permission to dig as deep as I wanted, meaning that I can ask the three references for more people to call and talk to.

Funny thing, though, is that the trusty internet is virtually silent on what might be useful to ask about a prospective employer.

So I consulted a trusted career development professional – a friend/colleague from mutual graduate school days. He confirmed my “gut”: structure the conversation the same way you would for any hiring reference check and base the questions around the future potential for yourself. That’s different from the focus of a hiring reference check where the questions center around confirming examples and patterns of past activity (attendance, reliability, responsibility, promotability, etc.).

INTERJECTION: unlike the vast majority of job candidates, I have always viewed and treated “the interview” as a mutual activity. Interviewing, properly implemented by both parties, is a conversation, not a Q&A. The interview that prompted this blog post was based around a DISC assessment and was, as I expressed to several members of the company, ridiculously brilliant.

My interview conversations, up to the point of reference checks, had illuminated many points of commonality, but, to be fair, must be considered “self reporting” until they can be confirmed. I’m not the easiest to pin down on this, though; I look for something interesting, fun, challenging, invigorating in a career move – not very tangible or measurable, right. But that is, of course, the goal of reference checks: to qualify and confirm the intangibles that are valuable to me.

Here’s how I outlined my Employer Reference Checks:

  • Introduce myself and simply outline the situation: Hi! This is CeCe, and I’m calling in reference to [potential employer name]. We are in conversation about working together to build a team. Specifically, [name] is considering hiring me, and I’m considering working for him/her. Yep, that simple.
  • Tell me about how you came to know and work with [name]. How long, hierarchy of working relationship, still working together?
  • What qualities, talents, or skills made/makes [name] a great colleague? Looking for unsolicited examples of the qualities, talents, skills the interview to date has illuminated to be priorities to employer and to you.
  • Tell me about [name]’s management style or priorities. Can you give me examples of management successes and/or failures? This is a variation on the strengths/weaknesses angle; the question assumes you know enough about management styles and how you need to be managed to achieve optimal outcomes both for the company and personally to recognize an informative answer. I’m also looking for evidence of management qualities or personality qualities that I try to avoid from experiences with bad managers in the past.
  • What would you say [name] values as the most important qualities in team member (employee/direct report)? This question is critical in confirming that what the potential employer has told you about priorities and values confirms and may illuminate values that have not been part of the conversation that may be the deciding factor. It will be up to you to bring that new information to the next iteration of the conversation.
  • Would you work with [name] again and in what capacity/relationship? Would something(s) need to be different for that to happen? This answer is important to me because I have be successful in leaving jobs on such good terms, after doing outstanding work, that the former employer seeks me out for freelance work and future job offers.

Naturally, this is my guide for about a 30-minute conversation, not a prescription for a boring and predictable and useless formula interview. I open a conversation. It starts with a getting to know you question that is relevant to the reason for the call. I listen keenly to that first answer and tailor subsequent questions on the spot, allowing me to respond with affirmations, ask follow-up questions before moving on, or even laughing acknowledging that an answer addressed a question I hadn’t even gotten to yet.

Some might argue that the idea of a candidate checking an employer’s references is a sign of mistrust. Of course it is, and rightly so. There is absolutely no good reason for a candidate for hire to blindly trust any individual who or any company which has not directly demonstrated the integrity and promise-fulfillment necessary to engender a basic level of trust. That process begins upon hire, and is the primary reason for trial or probationary or training periods: to determine if expectation-fulfillment matches on both/all sides and is the right intensity for achieving both company and individual goals.

The Lesson: at the point in the hiring process where the employer is ready to check references, as for some of your own. While it’s not common and a refusal isn’t necessarily a negative indicator, accommodation is definitely a positive nod to the mutual respect and trust necessary for a basically good working relationship.

TIP: Don’t forget your basic, strong phone demeanor: smile, laugh, confirm that you are listening with words rather than uh-huh before moving to the next question/topic. And prepare a voicemail message ahead of your call so you’re not scrambling for the words.


If you've had my cooking or heard me sing, you've shared some of the happiest and most memorable moments of my life. But if you've been lucky enough to listen to me sing while I cook, well, then you've seen the real me. And if you've sung and cooked with me, you know what being loved by me is!

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