Do you know what your referee will really say about you?

Ange Connor

In last week’s blog I shared my opinions on how important it is for the employer to conduct reference checks when recruiting. Most people are of the belief that no one ever provides referees who are going to give a bad reference. However, you would be surprised at how honest referees are when asked the right questions to draw out the information the employer needs and wants to know. As a candidate providing referees, I often feel that the candidate also takes the reference check stage of the process for granted. A job can be won or lost based on referee feedback so considerable thought should be given to who you will provide as a referee and what your referee might have to say about you.

I’m always surprised by the number of people who try to side step the recruitment process by saying that they don’t have any referees to provide. We recently had a candidate who was quite adamant that he could not provide referees after 10 + years of employment with his last employer. Putting up the I don’t have anyone I can provide as a referee is a big red flag. His reasoning was that there had been staff changes, he hadn’t kept in contact with anyone, he didn’t have contact details for them, there was simply no one we could possibly talk to who could be a referee for him.

My opinion is that this kind of response is a cop out. With social media it has never been easier to track down a previous colleague or manager. As a recruiter it starts to make you wonder why the candidate is being so resistant to providing referee details. If you are a candidate who is applying for and interviewing for jobs it is absolutely critical to have thought through who you might ask to be a referee for you.

I find that many people don’t think about this until the employer or recruiter is asking for the referee details. To make the most of the reference check process I’d encourage you to engage with your referees well before they are about to receive a call asking them a range of questions about you and your performance.

When considering who to ask to be a referee it’s important to consider and discuss with the potential referee the following things:

  • Will the referee have enough time to do the reference check justice?

Some reference checks are basic and consist of a handful of questions, others are going to be much more detailed and require examples and details of performance and behaviour. Will your referee be prepared to commit the time to completing the reference check thoroughly for you?

  • Does the referee remember you?

They might remember you but do they remember enough of the detail regarding your performance? Depending on how long ago you worked with them, their memory might be a bit sketchy so it’s important to ensure that they are going to be able to recall enough appropriate detail to support your application. I have had so many referees over the years reply to reference check questions with answers like I can’t recall their skills in that regard. This makes me wonder was there an issue with that particular skill or can they genuinely not remember. Hence it is important to make sure your referee is recent enough to be able to talk to your employment and performance.

  • What will they say about you?

I think it is critical to discuss with your referees the position you are applying for and the skills required for the position. Then you need to have a discussion with your referee about how well suited they think you are for the role. Very few candidates ever do this with their referees. In the majority of cases, when I call a referee they know very little about the position the candidate is applying for or the types of skills I am going to be asking them questions about. So, while the referee might give them a positive reference check they may also indicate that they think the candidate is great at skill set A, B and C but they are not suited to the type of role you are considering them for. Briefing your referee and providing as much detail to them as possible can only help the process.


Be brave; ask your referee what they will say, never just assume that your referee will give you a glowing reference. You might not like what they say or agree with it but at least you can deal with the situation rather than letting it become the stumbling block of the recruitment process.

About The Author
Ange Connor

Ange is the Founder and Director of Inspire HQ, one of regional Victoria’s leading recruitment, human resource (HR) and careers agencies. Ange is an ‘ideas’ person and a ‘big picture’ thinker. She loves to challenge the status quo – in fact, that’s how Inspire HQ began.

Ange has supported hundreds of businesses across Ballarat and regional Victoria to attract, engage, motivate, develop and retain their greatest assets; their people. Ange’s unyielding passion and invaluable knowledge of the recruitment and HR industry ensures she delivers the best solutions for her clients.

Ange has held various board positions and regularly volunteers her time to share her industry and market knowledge. She was recently a Councillor for the Victoria and Tasmania region of the Recruitment Consulting and Staffing Association (RCSA) of Australia and New Zealand, and she is a current Board Director of the Committee for Ballarat.

For more useful information, follow Ange on LinkedIn.

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