Reference Checking

I was coaching an executive client recently when the conversation led to reference checking.  My client asked about which references to use, and the government’s policy on providing reference checks.  She was worried that, in providing references, she would not be able to ensure the appropriate response from her references that would win her the job!

As we discussed her specific situation, I noted several common themes:

  • Had she contacted her references beforehand to understand what they would say about her, at least in a general sense?
  • Had she ensured her references were comfortable providing her with a good reference?
  • If someone agrees to act as a reference, had she determined the contact information that should be provided?
  • Should references be provided as part of the resume?

So – what are employment or job references?  A job or employment reference is either a person who is in a position to recommend another or to vouch for his or her employment, or can provide information and attest to the quality of a person’s qualifications, dependability or character.  In general, job applicants are requested to provide references who can provide information and who are willing to recommend the person in question for a job.

References fall into several categories – personal, professional, and supervisory.  Let’s explore each category separately.

  • Personal references are those people who can provide overall, positive information about you, and are generally from someone who has known you for a lengthy period of time.  These references most often come from your experiences outside the workplace, including volunteering, community activities, long-term friendships or other relationships usually formed and sustained outside of the workplace.  That’s not to say that personal references can’t or don’t come from the workplace, but usually aren’t found there.
  • Professional references are those references which are formed in the workplace, or through educational, professional development or other sources that are directly related to your profession or career.
  • Supervisory references are references provided by specific, direct-report managers and supervisors who can provide firsthand information regarding your performance in a specific job.  In many cases, you will be asked for both your supervisor’s contact information as well as references.

Within this context, we need to consider the basics of reference checking in the government.  USAJOBS provides a section for you to include your references, allowing you to input UP TO five references (do you have 5 people who would recommend you for a job?).  Each reference “block” asks for the name, title, company, telephone (one only), and email address, and indicator if the reference is personal or professional.  If you are submitting a resume through other government application processes, your resume should have a reference section.  Current best practice is to include at least three references, providing the same information requested in USAJOBS (name, title, company/organization, telephone number and email address).

To my knowledge (with 31 years of federal HR experience), there is no government-wide policy on checking references; there may be individual agency or sub-agency reference checking policies or procedures.  Reference checking is usually left up to individual managers who are making a selection, including whether reference checking is required.  The ambiguity regarding reference checking allows for a great deal of flexibility, but can also lead to inconsistencies in the process.  Additionally, many managers, when contacted for a reference, and depending on the agency policy, may not provide a reference, or may consign reference checkers to HR, who, depending on policy, may only confirm dates of employment, position held (maybe), and salary.

Now that you have a better idea of reference checking processes, you’ll need to identify your own personal and professional references.  Start by creating a list of those people whom have knowledge about your experience, expertise, skills, leadership, etc.  Once you have a comprehensive list, you need to consider what each reference would say about you, and how it will positively create or influence the outcome you are seeking when using them as a reference.  Here’s a list of considerations when choosing a reference:

  • Is the information the reference could provide dated?  As I was coaching the client mentioned above, one question surfaced about the “age” of her references.  As with many of us, she had identified references from jobs and experiences long past, but she is still using them!  If your references match this description, you need to consider updating your references.
  • Do you have their permission to use them as a reference?
  • Have you discussed what information they would provide about you if approached as a reference?  When checking references, I’m always surprised when I get receive negative information – really, didn’t you check before listing them?
  • Can your reference really add value to the reference checking process?  Are they prepared to provide specifics regarding your experience, expertise or other criteria that will help land you the job?  You might want to provide your references with information regarding the job you are applying for, and why you think you should be selected.  In other words, consider developing a set of talking points for your references that reflect a description of the job (copy the one from USAJOBS) and how your experience aligns with it – as well as a few points on your skills and expertise.  This may be especially important for personal references who may have limited knowledge regarding your experience or expertise, putting them in the position of only being able to give broad or general responses to reference checking questions.  If you are working on putting together a set of reference checking talking points, you might ask yourself – if I was checking references on this position, what would I want to know about this applicant?  That may help you develop your talking points.

So, it appears that reference checking can be fairly complicated!  The client referenced above took a very proactive approach to evaluating her current references, updating them, and preparing information for each reference on current positions she was being considered for, ensuring her references were prepared to advocate on her behalf when approached for a reference.  You should consider the same proactive approach!

Good luck identifying your references – and feel free to share this information with them!

Questions on this blog?  Please feel free to send to!