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Why Your References’ Rave Reviews May Be a Waste of Time

Your impressive resume got you the interview. You built a good rapport with the panel and you are feeling confident that you might get the job. Just as you are getting ready to pull out your reference list in case you are asked for it, someone asks you to explain your relationship with your bosses and colleagues at each of your past workplaces.”  Wow! That’s a curve ball you were not expecting. Suddenly it seems that all that effort of prepping your references was a waste of time.

Some employers believe that this common practice of relying on “candidate-supplied super fans” is not objective and could be a waste of time. Deborah Aarts, senior editor at Profit Magazine wrote recently that “Candidate-supplied references are usually nothing more than glowing reviews”, and she has found other people who agree with her. The chairman of an executive search firm, as well as a small business owner, agree that the practice is flawed because “Candidates are only going to give you people who’ll say good things about them.  Well, one would imagine that that’s the point of having references!

While some may see reference checking as a waste of time, it is not going away. Employers still need performance verification from people with whom a candidate has worked. They want to make sure that the candidate can do the job, will do the job and will fit in with the company’s culture. Reference checking is a combination of asking the right questions of the candidate and the references, and administering appropriate assessments. This should help to determine if the candidate will be a good fit. The majority of times the process works, so it wouldn’t amount to being a waste of time.

The candidate also has a job to do. He or she should be ready to explain the highs and lows in each position, if and when asked. This is not the time to badmouth the boss (or ex-boss) or anyone else. If the relationship was not all that great, say so, but frame it in a way that’s open and honest. Something like:

I am not sure what George at Widget Inc. would say about me at this point since he wasn’t too happy when I resigned.  After three years in the department, I was bypassed for a promotion and asked to train the new hire. I decided it was time to explore other opportunities, and so I left for the position with ABC Company. That position represented not only a hike in salary, but the title and responsibilities were exactly what I was looking for. As you can see, I excelled in that role and was promoted within 12 months of joining the company.”

Most employers know that people are not perfect and that work relationships sour.  However, if a candidate is willing to be transparent and authentic and discuss the situation candidly, while focusing on lessons learned, they could end up being a better reference for themselves than anyone else could.

What are your thoughts? Is referencing checking really a waste of time?


About Daisy

Daisy Wright is an award winning certified career management coach, author, and certified resume strategist who collaborates with executives, managers, and mid-career professionals in all aspects of their job search and career. With more than 15 years in the careers industry, she has what it takes to guide you in the "Wright" direction and help you get hired FASTER! Daisy is also the Founder and Chief Encouragement Officer of the Let's GROW Project.

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  1. Daisy,

    Thanks for the insightful blog post. I’ve often wondered whether having a list of “super fan” references really helps a potential employer. From my perspective as someone who often acts as a “super fan,” I’m surprised how often my students don’t prep me properly for the call. I don’t understand what job they’ve applied for, why they want it, and what kind of positioning they are looking for from me. Some fan!

    I think that the value in checking references for an employer may sometimes be catching the reference off guard, which can tell them a lot about the candidate.

  2. Hi Eryn,

    Thanks for your perspective on the topic. Would catching a reference off guard really benefit the employer? Not too sure.

    That’s why it’s all the more important for job seekers to give an update to their references when they are about to do interviews. First, they should confirm that the person is still willing to act as a reference. Second, it takes the surprise element out of it.

    If the employer really wants to know what the reference thinks about the candidate, s/he could ask, “Would you rehire _____?”. That’s a common question that speaks volumes. Or, they could ask, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate ______?”

    Thanks again, and best wishes,


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