I get a lot of questions about job references on this blog, and I do my best to answer them honestly. My responses are based on my first-hand experience as a hiring manager and career coach, as well as feedback from job seekers who comment on this blog.
One of the answers that makes many people uncomfortable is when I tell them whether a potential employer can contact someone NOT on their reference list. Brace yourself. They can. And some do. In fact, I have. But there was always a good reason, which hopefully you can avoid.
Why employers go beyond your reference list
Well, let’s be clear. Not all do. Often they stick to what you gave them. And a small percentage don’t even call any of those names, preferring to trust their gut. (This is not something I recommend to employers, based on some bad hires I’ve seen where references were not carefully checked.)
But there are good reasons to look to sources outside the boundaries of the names you gave them. Employers want to feel that you aren’t trying to hide anything. And often there are triggers to look beyond your list that come from “red flags” on your very own references page.
Red flags that might call your references into question
Since they want to make sure you’re someone they can trust and who will fit in well, things like this can unintentionally invite company reference checkers to do some extra snooping:
- Not enough references.
- Old, stale references only.
- Lack of any bosses / supervisors.
- References with the same last name as you.
- References with the same phone number as you. (Yup … that happens.)
- Numbers that don’t work or where they don’t know the person listed.
- People who don’t know your name or remember you working for them.
How to help make sure red flags don’t hurt your chances
The first thing you want to do is minimize chances that an employer would ever want to speak to anyone not on your references list. And that can start today. The solid references you make now are the gateway to future jobs you really want. So it’s never too early to start preparing for that NEXT job.
But if you are already looking and need help NOW, a great reference list that makes relationships and titles clear will help. And so will understanding the reference-checking process itself:
And here are a few more articles to help you understand the possibilities, so you can figure out what to do should a problem arise:
Hope that helps you land that job. Good luck!