The Informal Reference Check: How It Can Be Your Best Friend Or Worst Enemy

By Thursday, May 16, 2013 4 Permalink 0

informal reference

Do references really add value?

You’d be surprised how often this question is debated in HR and recruiting circles (It’s not with the enthusiasm of a Lebron vs. Kobe discussion, but still). We know that whoever you provide is gonna have great things to say about you; otherwise, why would you give their name?!

As a result, checking references has become a formality. It’s rare that you’ll get to the final stage of the interview process and lose the gig because your reference doomed you like a cold-hearted bastard. Additionally, many employers are reluctant to provide more than employment dates and job titles — rendering the reference useless. Though I guess that may be good for you if they have nothing good to say.

So how do we learn if you’re the rockstar you purport to be? How do we get to your dirtiest secrets?

You need to pay attention to something called the informal reference check.

The informal reference happens when a recruiter or hiring manager knows someone at your previous employer and they reach out “off the record” to learn more about you. This could occur before you even get an interview. You’ll never know when it’s happening, so you’ll have no control over how it goes down. And sometimes, that informal reference isn’t even your old manager or Debbie in HR. It could be someone that worked in a different department but may have interacted with you from time to time. And if that person didn’t have a good experience, they will let it be known. Think about it. There’s no reason for them to hold back since it’s off the record and you’ll never find out. And it could be that one bad experience that costs you the job. How to avoid this?

You have to think of yourself as a business and a brand. The company you work for is your client. Everybody you interact with is a customer. You want your customers to refer others to you so you can build your book of business (and street cred). If you make mistakes, you have to make them right.

How do you feel when you have a bad experience with a company? How do you feel when the company turns a mistake into great customer service? What are the places you continue to go to or order from? Why is that?

That’s what you have to aim for professionally. I’m not saying be fake and spend your days [nose-tanning]. I’m just saying you should be genuinely helpful, pleasant, and consistent. That’s how you conquer the informal reference.

This doesn’t just apply to places you’ve worked. It can include extracurricular groups or organizations you’re a part of and social networks like LinkedIn. Recruiters may see you’re connected to a peer or friend and ask them about you. You want them to have something positive to say regardless of how little or much you interact. Find a way to deliver value even if it’s just sharing helpful content with your network.

If you want to increase the odds of landing that new gig, treat yourself like a boss and business. Let your brand positively precede you. Because you never know who will determine the next step of your career.


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  • Sandra

    I just wanted to know something. When you apply for other jobs while being employed, and you mention to the potential employer that you don’t want he or she to contact your current employer because that can jeopardize your job. Will they still contact them regardless?

    • Rich

      Nah. Contacting current or previous employers (formally) without permission is a no no.

      • Sandra


  • Pingback: The Importance of Referrals: Relationships Today. Opps Tomorrow.()

  • JJ

    I would say that informal references are just bad practice. The only referees approached should be those provided by the person offered the job. Why should someone who took a dislike to you a while ago have any say over a job you are applying for now? And what about the high probability that the person has changed or improved in areas the informal referee questioned? I do not think they should be allowed.