Share If You Dare: What is the Value of Prior Employment References?

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“References available upon request.” We are all extremely familiar with the phrase, or some variation thereof, indicating that a host of credible witnesses stand at the ready to affirm a candidate’s praises. Some modern day camps including Emory University in Atlanta no longer recommend including the classic expression as a part of a polished and professional CV. It is now assumed that if the candidate is as fabulous as they claim, they will be able to produce at least a couple of living human beings to back up their lavish assertions without having to spell out such at the bottom of their resume. recently ran an excellent story called “The Nightmare Employee,” which seems to indicate a certain futility in the checking of references while acknowledging that there is an underlying need nonetheless. Not everyone shares the same opinion. One senior management coworker of mine once proclaimed that he believed it was an employer-beware market, and that no effort should be made to secure references at all.

I must admit I am hopeful that this manager is in the minority. Throughout my career, I have witnessed many eyebrow-raising incidents. I personally researched and eventually uncovered two separate internal embezzlement cases that totaled well over $2 million. I was given the glorious responsibility of securing a 25,000 square foot building, housing 215 employees, against a Y2K bomb threat from an unstable paranoid clerk, and I have observed first-hand what looked to be a wad of cash and a white powdery baggie exchanging hands on company property. Seeing what I have seen, I would argue that the potential risk of not obtaining any references at all well overshadows the risk of getting only love stories and fairy tales. Anything must be better than nothing, right? Interestingly, after I learned later that a former superior of one of these embezzlers was probably aware of the candidate’s knack for cooking cash, I asked why the unsavory habits of the crook weren’t shared when the references were checked. The superior’s response? Nobody ever asked.

I do believe that the wise recruiter would be well advised to take the preponderance of those eagerly provided references with a heavy grain of salt. The majority of candidates will not list a reference who does not at a minimum knowingly view them in a positive light. And a fair share of these references would, if enough detective work were conducted, turn out to be thoroughly unfamiliar with the candidate’s working capacity in any way, shape or form. Sorority sisters, bowling teammates, cousins and parents are all more than happy to serve as employment references despite likely never having personally observed the candidate produce anything more than a rib-tickling one-liner or facilitate any project more complex than a game of beer pong.

But what about the situations in which we receive a less than stellar reference on a candidate we were, up until then, feeling good about? Unless there were some verifiable data such as a criminal conviction record, shouldn’t these unfavorable reports be received as warily as the affirmative ones? Is it possible that either the negative reference-giver could have been settling a personal vendetta, or perhaps that the employment situation was so intolerable that most logical people would have hastily vacated? Possibly then we as recruiters will be required to lean heavily upon that which makes us good at what we do – our gut instinct. We should conduct as thoroughly detailed an interview as possible, and incorporate comprehensive lines of questioning paired with queries regarding specific job responsibilities. If we add in our wisdom and due diligence to the standard criminal background and social security verification checks that we should all automatically incorporate, it’s likely the best that we can hope for.

Next week, let’s turn the tables and look at how we should – or should not – respond when we’re the one being asked for the reference.


Nanci Lamborn

BrightMove Team Blogger/Writer


Nanci Lamborn is a 20-year veteran of human resources and recruiting. She   currently recruits in the Atlanta area for the insurance industry and recently obtained her SPHR designation.


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