Employment Reference Checks: Your Top Questions Answered

by | Finding A Job, Interviewing

Approximately 9 out of 10 employers conduct employment background screenings during their hiring process, according to a Society of Human Resources (SHRM) survey.

However, background checks look different depending on the industry, company, and position. In the tech industry, for instance, many companies are leveraging the power of automated reference checking.

Continue reading to get all your questions about employment reference checks answered, including what they look like in the tech industry, whether you can use a friend as a reference, what happens if your references don’t answer the phone, the role of automated reference checking, and more.

Are Job References Still A Thing?

Yes, many companies still ask for references, typically before extending a job offer, so you’ll want to have several contacts at the ready if you’re looking for a new position.

These reference checks often involve a prospective employer contacting a handful of your former employers and colleagues to get a sense of what it’s like to work with you. The exact type of references you’ll need will depend on the industry, company, and position you’re targeting.

For example, if you’re applying for a management position, you’ll want a reference from a direct report. And if you’re targeting a client-facing role, you might be asked to provide a presence for a former customer.

[Read: How To Evaluate A Job Offer In 6 Steps]

Do Tech Startups Ask For References?

One indicator of whether a tech startup will check your references is if they have a dedicated human resources person or department.

Very early-stage tech startups may not have the process and systems in place to consistently check references for every new hire. That said, many hyper-growth startups will have a dedicated HR person or team in place and ask for references before extending an employment offer.

When in doubt, it’s good practice to have several references prepped and ready if you’re looking for a new job, since you never know when you might be asked for them.

Does Big Tech Ask For References?

You can expect big tech companies to ask for references as well as conduct an employment verification check before extending you a job offer. Alternatively, they may extend you a contingent job offer that depends on you successfully passing a background check.

Some large tech companies outsource their reference checks and background verification processes to third-party companies, so don’t be surprised if you’re asked to complete a screening through an external vendor, which can take several days or more to process.

Importantly, though, you should never be asked to pay for your own background check, as this is a telltale sign of a job scam.

If you’re aiming for a contract tech job, you will likely complete your verification directly through the agency, rather than the tech company itself.

How Many References Should You Have?

Most companies will ask you to provide two to three contacts as part of the reference check process. Some very senior roles may require four to five, or even more, references as part of the executive background check and investigation.

Before providing a reference to a company, check with your contacts to ensure (1) they’re willing to serve as a reference and (2) they’ll say something positive, as you don’t want to catch them off guard.

Can I Use A Friend As A Reference?

It’s best to use a former colleague or manager as a reference, rather than a friend, since they need to be able to speak about what it’s like to work with you in a professional context.

If a former colleague or boss isn’t available to serve as a reference, try to use another work-related contact, such as an external stakeholder or client you regularly collaborated with.

Before using your current boss as a reference, you’ll want to ensure that they’re aware you’re looking for a new job, as you don’t want the employment certification to catch them by surprise.

How Many Candidates Do They Check References For?

Companies typically check references for the final one to two candidates they are considering for a position. However, if a company is struggling to decide between several candidates, they might increase the number of references they speak with to support their decision-making process.

Note: Being asked for your references doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being offered a job, as companies check references earlier in the hiring process to save time and resources before moving candidates through interviews.

While this is not always the case, companies will typically notify you before they contact your references so that you can provide them with a heads-up. When notifying your reference, you’ll want to provide them with the job description, your current resume, and any talking points, such as the strengths and areas of opportunity you’d like them to emphasize.

What Actually Shows Up In An Employment Verification Check?

Beyond reference checks, most companies will also conduct an employment verification check to verify your work history, education, and other personal information.

Although the exact details that will show up on the background check will depend on the platform the company uses, they typically check for the following:

  • Work history, including dates of employment, job title, reason for termination, and eligibility for rehire
  • Education, including confirmation of degree receipt and year of graduation
  • Criminal history

[Read: How To Explain An Employment Gap (With Details)]

What Matters Most In A Background Check?

Several things can immediately remove you from consideration for a role, most of which are related to not being forthright in your initial job application.

If a background check reveals that you fudged details on your resume, such as providing inaccurate job titles or dates of employment, it can result in your job offer being rescinded. Another major red flag is stating that you were eligible for rehire when you in fact were not.

You also need to be forthright when it comes to your education, particularly if you didn’t complete a degree. For instance, if you were a few units short of completion, you cannot state you received a degree; instead, you can list how many units you completed toward it.

Although some companies are open to hiring those who have been involved in the criminal justice system, particularly with the introduction of “ban the box,” others are less flexible and will rescind an offer if a criminal history appears in your background check.

What If References Don’t Answer?

It’s normal for references not to answer a call, especially in our digital-first world. Many employers will follow up with an email or automated reference form that allows your contact to provide their information and honest feedback asynchronously to the recruiter.

Because time is often of the essence during the hiring process, recruiters will often also move to the next reference on your list if they don’t hear back promptly.

That said, it’s important that you give your references a heads-up that they’ll be contacted.

What Is Automated Reference Checking?

Automated reference checks, or digital reference checks, are a tech-enabled way for employers to verify your work history and collect details from your references. They are becoming increasingly common, especially among large tech companies, as they save significant time and resources in the hiring process since they don’t involve individual recruiter phone calls or emails.

Important: You may have unknowingly consented to an automated reference check process when submitting your original job application and resume through the company’s applicant tracking system (ATS).

What Are Backchannel Reference Checks? 

Backchannel reference checks are when prospective employers contact supplementary references beyond the formal ones you provided during the hiring process.

These informal references are exceptionally common in startups and executive roles when hiring managers want to gain additional insights on a potential candidate.

Backchannel references can carry just as much weight, if not more, than formal ones and make or break whether you land a position.

Personally speaking, as a tech career coach with deep industry connections, more hiring managers than I can count have reached out to me asking, “What do you think of this candidate? Should we hire them?”

Final Thoughts On Employment Reference Checks

Despite reference checks only being one part of landing a new role, they’re not something you want to overlook or downplay during your job hunt. If you’re unsure what an employer is looking for as part of a reference check or the employment verification process, don’t be afraid to ask. You’ve got this!

About Dr. Kyle Elliott

About Dr. Kyle Elliott

Dr. Kyle Elliott is the founder and career coach behind CaffeinatedKyle.com. His expertise is in Silicon Valley and high-tech. As a result of working with Dr. Elliott, senior managers and executives have landed jobs at Meta, Amazon, Google, and nearly every other tech giant you can imagine.

A trusted career expert, Dr. Elliott’s words have been featured on Business Insider, CNBC, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Fortune, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, among dozens of other leading publications. He has been recognized as a Best Career & Interview Coach, Best Resume Writer for Silicon Valley/Tech Managers & Executives, and LinkedIn Top Voice (the platform’s highest honor).

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