Calling references: Rational or irrational?

post by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-28T21:06:46.872Z · score: 7 (8 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 16 comments

Over the past couple of decades, I've sent out a few hundred resumes (maybe, I don't know, 300 or 400--my spreadsheet for 2013-2015 lists 145 applications).  Out of those I've gotten at most two dozen interviews and a dozen job offers.

Throughout that time I've maintained a list of references on my resume.  The rest of the resume is, to my mind, not very informative.  The list of job titles and degrees says little about how competent I was.

Now and then, I check with one of my references to see if anyone called them.  I checked again yesterday with the second reference on my list.  The answer was the same:  Nope.  No one has ever, as far as I can recall, called any of my references.  Not the people who interviewed me; not the people who offered me jobs.

When the US government did a background check on me, they asked me for a list of references to contact.  My uncertain recollection is that they ignored it and interviewed my neighbors and other contacts instead, as if what I had given them was a list of people not to bother contacting because they'd only say good things about me.

Is this rational or irrational?  Why does every employer ask for a list of references, then not call them?

16 comments

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comment by tanagrabeast · 2015-08-29T00:30:33.145Z · score: 17 (17 votes) · LW · GW

Why does every employer ask for a list of references, then not call them?

You think that's bad?

A local school district called the "references" of a prospective employee for a tough-to-fill position. These references, her former bosses, uniformly advised against hiring this person.

The district hired her anyway.

After a long and difficult process, the district eventually fired this employee. Then, the principal that had done most of the legwork on the firing got a call from yet another district. Surprised to have been listed as a reference, the principal vociferously cautioned the new district against hiring her.

They hired her anyway.

comment by James_Miller · 2015-08-29T01:53:32.694Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

I've written hundreds of recommendations for undergraduates and given permission for students to list me as a reference many times, but as best I can recall I've only been contacted twice for reference checks.

comment by Creutzer · 2015-08-29T09:15:47.749Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Doesn't academia work a bit differently, though? You've probably written scores of letters of recommendations which students immediately sent somewhere.

comment by 9eB1 · 2015-08-29T03:03:48.354Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I have both acted as a reference and had my references called. In my experience, references are only called after a person has been interviewed (at least once), immediately before a final offer is made. No one wants to have their professional references having to field a bunch of phone calls, so they expect that the companies they contact will be serious about offering them a job before that happens. The references are not to generate interest in you, they are to confirm that the company's interest in you is well-founded.

comment by 105afterford · 2015-08-30T04:52:13.769Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I have worked in candidate evaluations for a top finance company as well as some smaller companies and non-profits.

On references

On listing them: My recommendation to the OP and others is to not list or send your references on your resume unless it is specifically asked for upfront, and despite you suggesting that all employers ask for them, I disagree... Most companies, if they ask for references, will do so only after an initial interview. The benefit of this is that you can inform your references ahead of time that you are interviewing with a specific company for a specific position. As someone who has been a reference for several friends and colleagues, it's always great to have this heads up.

On calling them: At my current firm I would say I call references around 50% of the time. We don't really have strict criteria and I would say its more at the hiring managers discretion but below are a few scenario's where its more or less likely that we call a reference.

More Likely to call: Short tenure at previous positions, applicants who apply via web (vs. referral or recruiter), applicants for managerial or high business risk positions, applicants who make claims that we want to validate.

Less Likely to call: highly technical workers who can demonstrate that aptitude in an interview, kids right out of school, referral's or candidates from trusted recruiters, people who come off as very open and honest (it's a managers bias opinion)

On whether or not its rational: I am a big proponent of holistic hiring and grading an applicant on the full package. I want as much data and info on a person when making a hiring decision, even/especially if that data paints the candidate in a negative light. Nobody is perfect, which is why we still love to ask the question "what is your biggest weakness." At the end of the day I have a picture of my candidate that tells me his/her experience (1-10), his/her aptitude for learning (1-10), his/her culture fit (1-10), and additional measurements based on the position. Any company that doesn't strive for learning as much as possible about their employees is doing it wrong / irrationally in my opinion. People are the most important part of any company and the consequences of hiring wrong can be catastrophic.

comment by shminux · 2015-08-28T21:23:12.933Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

My experience is somewhat different.

I have been told by my references that they were called, I have also been told by other people that their references were contacted. I have only been contacted as a reference maybe once, but I know others who had calls several times. This was long ago, however. Maybe this has changed in the last few years, and the references are going away.

Why does every employer ask for a list of references, then not call them?

I have never included the list of references, only the standard line "reference available upon request" at the end of the resume. Odds are the interviewer will never ask for them. If they do, they probably intend to contact them.

comment by Tem42 · 2015-08-29T19:09:05.951Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The responses here are interesting, but would be more useful if they included an indication of what country the poster is in.

comment by Dagon · 2015-08-29T04:05:17.766Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think they're a lot less common than they used to be. Most large tech companies, at least, don't make use of personal or professional references. They do often do a background check and/or confirm with former employees that you actually worked there, had the title you claim, and did not leave in a way that makes you ineligible for re-hire. Note that this is also the only information they'll give about you for future employers.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-08-29T14:06:12.680Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

When the federal government did a background check on me, they asked me for a list of references to contact. My uncertain recollection is that they ignored it and interviewed my neighbors and other contacts instead, as if what I had given them was a list of people not to bother contacting because they'd only say good things about me.

I've been contacted twice for friends' security clearances, which is similar but probably more likely that the due diligence is actually done (and it actually matters).

comment by PhilGoetz · 2015-08-29T17:38:19.072Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But were they the people you listed on the SF-171?

comment by Vaniver · 2015-08-29T19:58:52.504Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It wasn't my clearance; I was their reference, not the other way around. I don't know where they listed me.

comment by Petter · 2015-09-06T07:42:05.284Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Google will ask you for references before hiring, but will ignore and never read your cover letter.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-10-23T06:06:31.171Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I never apply to jobs with a cover letter. I feel like it screens out those who waste their own time, and will inevitably waste mine.

However, I'm starting to realise that's not prudent, and I reckon I should game their system with key words.

comment by Squark · 2015-08-30T17:13:33.732Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I did a considerable amount of software engineer recruiting during my career. I only called the references at an advanced stage, after an interview. It seems to me that calling references before an interview would take too much of their time (since if everyone did this they would be called very often) and too much of my time (since I think their input would rarely disqualify a candidate at this point). The interview played the most important role in my final decision, but when a reference mentioned something negative which resonated with something that concerned me after the interview, this was often a reason to reject.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2015-08-31T00:25:50.989Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was once interviewed for a USG background check. I was not named by the subject and there definitely is a policy that such people are important. But the investigator got my name from one of the named references, whom the investigator did interview. (The person who gave my name told me these details and furthermore said that there was a frantic search for someone else to interview that day so that the investigator did not have to make a second trip.)