What Are References—Really?

You Need a Reference Policy to Inform Your Employees

Business woman is checking the references of a potential employee.
••• Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

References are people who are familiar with some aspect of your life and work and are willing to share what they know with another person to derive a benefit for you. A reference also refers to the content of the information, insights, and experience that another person is willing to share about their relationship with you and their experiences of your work.

In relationship to recruiting employees, job references provide you with insights and thoughts on how well an individual performed in a particular job. You might also gain information about how your candidate fit into the company's culture and whether the employer would hire the individual again, a very telling and important question.

In listening to the responses of the potential employee's references, you can learn a lot about their strengths, weaknesses, and values, if the reference is forthcoming with information after thoughtful deliberation.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, "In a 2018 HR.com report sponsored by the National Association of Background Screeners (NABS), 95 percent of surveyed employers indicated that they use one or more types of employment background screening. The report also showed that while most respondents conducted checks during the hiring process, others did so throughout the employment life cycle."

Establish a Policy About Providing References in Your Organization

Your company should establish a policy about who can provide a formal reference and under what circumstances. You need a second policy that identifies guidelines for managers and others who may receive requests from employees and former employees to provide a reference. How do you want your employees to respond to these requests?

References are checked by potential employers, financial institutions, professional associations, clients and customers, and any organization that deems checking your personal integrity and ethics important. When you designate a list of references for a potential employer, the employer may or may not contact them.

The employer may instead, or in addition, contact anyone who appears on your job application as your supervisor, your former manager, or an earlier job's company owner. Or, the employer may approach contacts and colleagues they know personally, or people their contacts know in your industry or professional association, to obtain references.

In one frequently encountered example, the CEO of an organization sent out a hundred emails to colleagues, friends, and industry contacts soliciting information about a candidate he was considering for a sales director position.

The employer's options in learning about your job history, your work contributions, and your ability to interact professionally with work colleagues are unlimited. Once you sign the employment application, you are giving the potential employer your permission to contact anyone who can shed professionally relevant light on your previous job performance.

References are provided either verbally or in writing. References are personal, professional, or employment-related. Generally, you ask people to serve as your references when you believe that their shared comments and information about you will have a positive impact on your achievement of your goals.

How to Appropriately Select a Reference

Selecting references is challenging. You want to select people who are positive about you, articulate in their ability to talk about your contributions, and willing and available at short notice. Maintain positive references throughout your lifetime to ensure the accomplishment of your life missions.

References are potentially powerfully positive people who can help you achieve your goals and dreams. References are often the final step before you accomplish your current objective. In your job search, as an example, the potential employer only spends time contacting references when he or she wants to confirm that you are the person they need for their open position.

Your references and your relationship with your references can make your day. Don't treat your references lightly.

Types of References

Employment References:

People who are familiar with, and can speak positively about your work. The best employment references are your current and former bosses. Colleagues, customers, and other managers are also effective references.

Professional References:

People who are professional colleagues can serve as references. You may share a professional association membership or leadership position, have worked on a committee together, or organized and led the neighborhood condo association, as examples.

Personal References:

People who know you and your personal life well. Personal references are often friends, fellow volunteers in social situations, ministers or other clergy members, and colleagues who know you both personally and professionally.

Delivery of References: How Do Your References Tell About You?

Written References:

Written references are difficult to acquire and are quickly dated and inconsequential. Many employers refuse to provide written references for fear of eventual litigation. This is why so many organizations now refer requests for written references to their Human Resources offices; these offices usually provide employment verification and little more.

Many employers ask their employees to refrain from writing references as well; written references have a short shelf life but many recipients use them well beyond the time frame their writer intended. HR professionals received references that are out-of-date regularly and do not find them helpful. (What have you done lately?)

You'll want to try to obtain written references from employers who are going out of business, bosses who are retiring or moving to another company, college professors who may not stay closely in touch with you, and colleagues with whom you expect little interaction in the future. Other references are more effective delivered verbally.

Verbal References:

Verbal references are informal and you might expect more cooperation from your current supervisor and other important references when a written reference is not required from them. Many people are willing to discuss your strengths if you have been an effective, contributing employee. They wish you well and hope that your next professional or career moves are successful.

Always prepare your references in advance for a potential reference check. They can't help you if they don't know what you need. Especially in a job search, employers do check references more and more often.

Develop Your References While Employed

You'll want to develop employment references, professional references, and personal references while you are currently employed. Scrambling for references when you find yourself in the job market unexpectedly is the worst time to find and develop references.

Your attempts to reach people, prep potential references for a reference check, or bring an acquaintance or colleague potential reference up-to-date on your current situation and goals is difficult and time-consuming during a job search. Develop your references before you need them—and periodically stay in touch with them.