Why References Matter


When a company begins to evaluate a final candidate for a position, they often do a thorough background check prior to extending an offer. Unfortunately, some candidates overstate their experience and don't realize they are putting their candidacy and reputation at risk. This is why references matter. Because they help validate the candidate’s achievements. But they can also reveal inconsistencies in their résumé and interview, which is crucial information for the employer. In addition, favorable references ensure that one’s character and integrity are beyond reproach and can ultimately help the applicant land the job. In the end, the hiring manager expects a comprehensive assessment of each candidate. Therefore, references are essential in assisting employers in making an informed decision when considering someone for the role.

The quality of your references is significant. It conveys that you are comfortable and confident in your abilities and their ability to translate your accomplishments in the best possible light. Those in a position to support your claims are the best in validating your successes. But sometimes, your references may expose your lack of experience and may inadvertently compromise your reputation. That's another reason why your references matter. 

Ideally, your credentials align perfectly with the job description, but sometimes they don't, which is perfectly okay. Being forthcoming during the pre-screening about your shortcomings will always favor you. As a result, two things can happen; one, the recruiter will spare you from the disappointment of being passed up by the employer and will likely keep you top of mind for other assignments. The second outcome is that your honesty may impress the employer, who may be willing to relax some of the requirements to secure your interest. Either way, your reputation, character and integrity are essential qualities to protect.

To help you land the job, consider including friendly colleagues and peers that can positively speak to your reputation and incomparable traits and attributes. The ideal reference will have examples and details to quantify and qualify your key accomplishments. Most search firms conduct 360 reference checks. Therefore, you will likely be asked to provide a list that includes a current supervisor, colleague, peer, subordinate, and, depending on the role, a long-time client. 

Conversely, if approached to serve as a reference for someone you feel uncomfortable representing, it is well within your right to pass on the request. You are doing them a big favor by suggesting they use someone better suited to provide the necessary information that conveys confidence in you to succeed in the role.  

Finally, I offer this advice when selecting your reference list:

  • First, choose trustworthy people who will keep your candidacy private and confidential.
  • When approaching possible references, give them a heads up that you are actively engaged in a search, describe the role with as much detail as possible and confirm their willingness to participate. Listen carefully to their response. If they are hesitant, it may signal their reluctance to take part in the process. If that is the case, have backups in mind. Remember, consent is a must. 
  • It will also favor you to provide each participant with a copy of the position description. Doing so will orient them on questions they may be asked to address. 
  • When releasing your list of references, don't forget to include the individual's name, title and current employer. You may want to include a sentence or two describing the length of time you've known them and in what capacity. It is also important that you include the phone number and email address where they can easily be reached. Just make sure that they are on board with you sharing their personal or confidential information.
  • If you report to someone relatively new to your organization, notify the hiring manager of your concern that informing them of your candidacy could compromise your employment status. Instead, offer to provide a previous supervisor, who has known you for a while and can speak to your readiness to take on a more substantive role. If the hiring manager insists on speaking to your current manager, ask if they would be willing to wait until you are notified that you are indeed the candidate of choice. 
  • In the case of new subordinates, it's unlikely they can speak to your leadership and management style. Instead, choose someone who has reported to you for some time and can provide extensive details on your effective management skills. 
  • Be strategic in selecting your references. This is your final chance to impress the employer. Choose carefully. 
  • Have faith in the process, have faith in your references and have faith in yourself.  

Best of luck to you!


The Career Engineering series features the expert advice of Amy Rueda, a 25-year veteran of executive search, who has placed CEOs and C-suite executives across multiple industries and functional areas. Her passion for leading diversity initiatives that focus on change management and employee engagement is reflected in her portfolio of accomplishments. Amy studied political science and was born and raised in Los Angeles.

Email your career questions to connectfeedback@alumni.ucla.edu and Amy will try and answer them in next month’s issue of Career Engineering.

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