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Do potential employers really check references?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: The last few times I interviewed for jobs and got close to an offer, I was asked for my references. However, my references all said no one ever contacted them. How often do prospective employers actually check references? Should I be worried about how employers handle my references?

Nick Corcodilos: Based on comments I get from thousands of Ask The Headhunter subscribers, few employers seem to check references properly (if at all), and even fewer independent recruiters seem to. Worse, they don’t start the recruiting process by seeking out credible referrals.

Good recruiters do two kinds of reference checks. Prior to soliciting candidates, the recruiter should gather referrals from trusted sources – and recruit only those who are recommended most highly. Otherwise, why would they present you to their client, who is paying for properly vetted candidates? That’s a kind of preliminary reference check.

But most recruiters don’t start with referrals. They merely match a few key words to qualify a resume, forward it to the employer, and let the employer figure out whether you are a worthy candidate.

Done properly, the second, more common reference check is usually more detailed, and conducted with your permission after a formal interview. But the trend is to outsource this check. (See “Automated Reference Checks: You should be very worried”) That is risky for everyone. For employers, because there’s no telling how thorough or accurate the check is. For job applicants, because those third-party reference checkers might mishandle and upset your references. Who is making that call to someone who volunteered to speak up for you? An experienced business person, or an under-paid “work from home” contractor reading from a script? You just don’t know.

You really have no idea whose hands your valuable references are being placed in or who’s making that call. So ask in advance, before you provide your references.

Then there’s the problem of privacy and control of your sensitive information. For example, if employer A outsources your reference check to Checker 1, Checker 1 saves the information. When employer B requests a check, how do you know Checker 1 doesn’t just re-use that “on-file” reference for B — for another fee but without informing you? Depending on the release and waiver you signed the first time around, how do you know Checker 1 didn’t sell your reference file to Checker 2 — another reference service altogether?

You probably realize that once you send your resume to a recruiter, you will have no control of where your resume is sent. Do you know where your references are?

It’s not just a matter of whether employers actually check your fine references, though of course, if employers aren’t actually checking them, it might cost you a job opportunity. It’s also important to establish ground rules with each employer and recruiter before you turn over those names. Perhaps much worse than no one contacting your references is too many recruiters and employers unnecessarily annoying people who have volunteered to help you out.

Before you quickly hand a list of your references to anyone that asks for them, read “References: 5 reasons to withhold them.”

If you’re an employer and you’re “farming out” reference checks to some other firm, read “References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.”

Dear Readers: Do you find that employers and recruiters actually check your references? What ground rules do you insist on before you allow anyone to contact your references?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2018 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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