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I received an email press release recently with the headline “A professor who has reviewed thousands of job references says former bosses do not honor corporate policy.” It’s an interesting read worth checking out. The article reminded me that individuals and organizations need to think about their role in the employment reference process.
Just to be clear, I don’t view employment references the same as background checks. A background check is often related to the job. For example, if I’m applying for a position that will involve driving a company vehicle, it makes sense to do a motor vehicle background check. Or if I’m applying for a position that involves cash handling / credit cards, then maybe doing a credit check.
An employment reference check is when the organization contacts someone that has worked with the candidate – boss, co-worker, subordinate, client – to get information about the candidate’s work experience. There are three parties involved in a reference check: the company doing the check, the candidate providing the name of a person who will provide a reference, and the person giving the reference. Each of them has things to consider.
Organizations Should Have a Policy
Let’s start with organizations. First, organizations need to decide if they’re going to conduct reference checks during the hiring process. Depending on your location, industry, and the job, it might not be a requirement. The organization will want to weigh the advantages and disadvantages, including the legal considerations.
In addition, the organization will want to have a policy regarding giving references. The policy should be reviewed by your legal and risk teams. It should include things like LinkedIn endorsements. Then, make sure everyone knows it.
Individuals Need References for More Than Getting a Job
On an individual level, one of the things we need to remember is that employment references do more than get someone a new job. References might be asked for when you apply for an award or want to volunteer.
That being said, I am amazed. Yes, amazed. Totally and thoroughly amazed at the number of people who list a reference without checking first to see if the person is okay with it. It’s important to think about who your references might be, why you’re asking them, and get their acceptance. As someone who has been on the receiving end of a surprise reference call, it’s not helpful to be scrambling around looking for something to say. So, in thinking about your references, regularly stay in touch with them so they can help you.
Don’t Feel Pressured to Give a Reference
Finally, giving a reference shouldn’t be considered a reciprocal activity, as in “Oh, I gave Leonard a good reference so he should give me one.” Being someone’s reference is a responsibility. Individuals should decline being someone’s reference if they don’t feel comfortable doing it.
And if someone declines to be a reference for you, don’t take it personally. I know that’s easy to say, but there are many reasons why someone might decline being a reference that have nothing to do with you or your work performance. Maybe their organization doesn’t permit it. Maybe they simply have too much going on in their life and need to focus on other stuff.
Getting and giving references is a part of our work lives. As such, we need to understand what our organization expects, and the role we want to have in the process. If you haven’t reached out to your references lately to say “hello”, it might be time to do that. Confirm that they’re still willing to accept the responsibility. And be okay if they need to support you in a different way.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Boston, MA19