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At what stage in a job interview process should references come into play?

by princepawn (Parson)
on Feb 11, 2002 at 05:58 UTC ( #144581=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

<html><head><title>Why I Hate Getting References for Prospective Employers</title></head> <body>
I am writing this to get some different opinions on the candidate assessment process and whether or not the request for candidate references should come before or after making an offer to the candidate. And what the pros and cons of that might be. crossposted to jobs-discuss at <a href=></a>. I hope this isn't considered very off-topic. It certainly came about during a Perl job search, so it is somewhat related.

I am happy to say that I am moving through the recruitment process very smoothly with one new prospective employer thanks to the Net-Temps job search website.

I took a Perl Technical Test that had 5 blatant errors in it, but I worked past them and managed to score in the 90+ percentile on a 40-question test.

Now we get to my sore spot:

Can I get a couple of technical references to call up and ask some questions?
I think maybe 5-10 percent of all recruiting firms still ask for references and I hope that number plummets to zero soon. Here are my reasons why:

Not a Very Direct Means of Assessment

People call up former employers for 3 reasons.
  1. to make sure you actually ever were there (a good reason).
  2. to get a "character reference"
  3. to get a "technical reference"

While I have no qualms with intent number one, this could be handled by a company's HR department or by asking for pay stubs. However reason 2 is somewhat superficial. Is it fair to assess my character by word-of-mouth? It this much different from gossip? Regarding reason 3, it is far more direct to simply give the person a technical test or look at his recent certifications on such tests instead of calling someone and asking how technically sound I am - especially considering that the person calling probably isn't too technically sound himself.

Wasting my Former Employer's Time.

During the dot-com era, I would get maybe 40 calls per day from recruiters. A basic reference call takes about 5-10 minutes. That totals 200-400 minutes of time of my employer, or about a whole day, answering questions for someone. He does not get paid by his company to do this and I don't get paid to request such services of them.

This reason compounds per-former employee.

You Are Getting an Opinion from Someone I Disliked Enough to Leave or Who Disliked Me Enough to Remove Me. If You Like Me, then You Will Probably Hate Them as Much as I Did.

Let's face it. Breakups are painful situations. When there is something about a situation that forces a company to drop you or for you to leave, there are bound to be some leftover feelings of ill will towards each other. Not a lot, necessarily, but it is fairly common for each person to make himself and his reasons right and the other person wrong and misinformed.

And in some cases, the employee might actually have been right. But the reference review process is laying full weight of "who was right" in the hands of the employer.

Why is this not good? Well, many former employees have sued their companies because of negative recommendations because they in fact were good employees but the company said negative things about them out of hate. A lawsuit is well and good for those who have the time, money, and determination to take a risk with the legal system. But for others, such as myself, I am potentially left with some employer licking his chops at a chance to give his reasons why <me></me> is the Adolph Hitler of the IT World. In fact, I prefer to be considered the Andy Rooney of perlmonks, but that's another story for another time

It is Hard to Get References

For me, it is hard to get references. I have worked at 4 dot-coms in the past 3 years: 2 are toast. One has changed names 2 or 3 times and no-one I knew there is answering emails and they dont post phone numbers at their website. And one, by George, is still in business! And the financial industry is getting slaughtered as well. My reference at one of those companies has a bounced email address now too. But of course, I am the one who gets those long pauses when I give this story. I am the one who is a lying fugitive on the run from my past employers. Everything I say is oh-so-suspect-and-on-so-hard-to-believe. GAH!

Also, I know for a fact that many major corporations simply do not give any sort of character or technical reference. They will only corroborate that you did in fact work there and that you did in fact work for a certain person.

Takes a Long Time to Know Someone

It is not possible to know anyone by word-of-mouth well. Enough said.


Well, I would like to hear about other people's viewpoints on this. I personally hope that the reference process is annihilated.

In fact, after my last such ordeal I hate promised myself that I would not ever give out references until I had signed off on an offer. In other words, I feel it is OK for references to serve as a background check, but not as a means of validating me as a prospective employee.

However, since this recruiter was the only the 4th to call in 30 days, I am lowering my standards in hopes of being fed the doggy bone of paid Perl development.


Edit Masem 2002-02-19 - Added READMORE tag

  • Comment on At what stage in a job interview process should references come into play?

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Re: At what stage in a job interview process should references come into play?
by Trimbach (Curate) on Feb 11, 2002 at 14:03 UTC
    I'm an actual honest-to-goodness HR person, so here's my take on references, and what I would say to a hiring manager before he or she actually hired someone.

    References are a critical part of the hiring process. In fact, I don't recommend that anyone ever hire someone without them. There are 3 parts to the applicant evaluation process: the resume (i.e., what the applicant thinks about themselves), the interview (what the manager thinks of the applicant), and the reference (what someone else, preferably a supervisor, thinks about the applicant.) You can't get a good picture of an applicant without all 3 pieces... the resume gives you an idea of what sort of experience and areas of expertise the applicant has, the interview allows you to get more detailed information about specific areas of the job that concern you, and the reference lets you know what kind of employee the applicant might be, because you're talking to people who've known the applicant in an employee's context.

    I've seen TONS of situations where the resume looked good, the applicant seemed perfectly reasonable in the interview, but the reference went something like "Oh yeah, Bob's a great employee: very smart and helpful... when he's here." which is pretty obvious, but you also get subtle things like "Bob works really well by myself. He prefers not to work in groups if he can help it." which might be a turnoff if you're hiring into a dynamic team environment. Oh yeah, and did I mention that, when asked, Bob said "Absolutely... I'm always prompt coming to work" and "Team player? Absolutely! I love teams!" when asked about it in the interview.

    Here's the key, though: the references you supply to a potential employer are supplied by you, which means you're free to submit the names of those people who'll put you in the best possible light. Employers understand that people move around and you might've lost touch with some, but you should be able to produce someone somewhere in your work history who can talk to your abilities. If you can't, well, then that does say something about your employability. If there's no one in your work past who would be willing to hire you back, why should I hire you into my organization?

    Bottom line is technical experience and first impressions in an interview are not (and, indeed, cannot) be the only criteria by which job applicants should be judged. Resumes and interviews are often misleading, or at least give false impressions. You do not want the most technically proficient super genius working for you... if they never come to work, or don't work well with your employees, or don't have a good attention to detail, or are disruptive in the workplace etc. etc. etc. Where else will you get this kind of information except in a reference? And as for the amount of time they take up, yeah, it's a burden (on the references themselves) which is why I encourage managers to only check references of the applicants that are on the "short list" (i.e., the top 2 or 3) who've already been interviewed and are serious candidates for employment. Saves everyone a lot of time.

    Gary Blackburn
    Trained Killer

(crazyinsomniac) Re: At what stage in a job interview process should references come into play?
by crazyinsomniac (Prior) on Feb 11, 2002 at 08:18 UTC
    This *is* OT, but as this is "Meditations", folk'll are free to meditate (and I do mean meditate), and anyway, it's extremely relevant (cause I'm sure most regulars here want'em perl job ;D).

    The only words of wisdom(which you probably already heard a 100 times before) I have is to "secure a new job, before leaving your old one", which is good advice, if you get to leave on your terms (you're not fired or something ....

    When I was looking for employment last year, I too was faced with the references dilemma (coworkers come, coworkers go, new ones been there a week, boss has 200 employees..... oy).

    My general strategy up to that point was, whenever I could, i'd ask "friendly" coworkers, at about the 3 month mark of our 'relationship' (you know, normal work interaction -- friendly), if they'd ever consider giving me a reference if I ever needed one, to which everytime they said sure, at which point i'd get a nice card. The problem with this scheme was, a couple of months down the road, after they've left, card's no good, so important lesson here, keep your "rolodex" (card collection) up to date (basics of networking), cause you never know when you might need'em (which i did).

    Anyway, what happened was that of the 5 people I had in my rolodex, I had lost touch with all of them (cause I was there at a long time, and they were all at least 2 workplaces away from that one), so when time came to give my references (when the potential employer requested some, after my 2nd interview, which *is* when I even consider giving them out), I just turned to my current coworkers (which just about past the 3month mark), and they gladly agreed to sell me to the new guy (I was glad, I was leaving, it's good to have a going away party ~ bring cake, which brings us to another important lesson, grease up yourcoworkers, a little cake goes a long way).

    Suprisingly enough, the prospective employer even contacted the big boss, who said good things (apparently cause a looong time ago, I personally wrote some article for him, and we exchanged words for about 10min, which he remembered ... I should've noted that interaction in some kind of journal somewhere, cause you never know when it could come i handy to "remind" the boss of all the good you've done for him :D). Not only was the job was mine (not that too many others were wanting it), but I was practically already working before the negotiations were over (or any of the paperwork signed). It definetly helped being able to back up everything on my resume with interest (demonstrate the knowledge, and have references say yup, he does know all that stuff, and how).

    That was my brief dealing with the whole references issue, as I've not had many jobs (or many full-time ones at that).

    I too do not like being jerked around and "reserve" the privilege that is a reference, personal or otherwise, only for employers who seriously consider employing me (after 2nd interview *if* they seem interested, 3rd one should be negotiations).

    I hope someone gets something out of my account of things, which is unbeliveably rather accurate (sometimes I'm a good observer)


    Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most.
    perl -e "$q=$_;map({chr unpack qq;H*;,$_}split(q;;,q*H*));print;$q/$q;"

Re: At what stage in a job interview process should references come into play?
by merlyn (Sage) on Feb 11, 2002 at 11:50 UTC
      "Just be sure they're not soft or symbolic references if the employer is using strict."

      Bad hacker, no Coke.

Re: At what stage in a job interview process should references come into play?
by kwoff (Friar) on Feb 11, 2002 at 08:07 UTC
    I agree with you. The major problem for me is I'm very shy in person, so I don't tend to "network" very well. Also, my first job at a startup I quit after not getting paid, so after two years I have only one reference source, unless I ask a professor I did research with in a totally unrelated field. The reference is the part I dread most.
Re: At what stage in a job interview process should references come into play?
by dthacker (Deacon) on Feb 11, 2002 at 20:22 UTC
    When I interviewed for my current position, I was handed a coding test. Turns out the previous applicant had "exaggerated" her ability to code in the language (Informix 4gl). References had not uncovered the gap in her technical expertise. She'd lasted a miserable 6 weeks, been unable to produce and was let go. After that fiasco, my company came up with the coding test.

    When I had to conduct interviews for a LAN manager position, we were asked to take one of several internal candidates. None of them were doing IT work for a living, so I came up with a list of interview questions that tested knowledge and expertise. I used references to evaluate the "soft" qualifications that I valued: communication, motivation, professionalism. It worked very well and I'll use the same combo again. Test for the technical skills, get references for the people skills. And get them before the offer is extended.


Re: At what stage in a job interview process should references come into play?
by mitd (Curate) on Feb 13, 2002 at 10:56 UTC

    As a person who has been hiring, firing, mentoring and generally driving techs crazy for too many years, I can give one fact and one strategy.

    Fact: References are a burnt into 'Corporate Culture' and it ain't going away.

    Strategy: Write your own reference template and ask former employers if they will read and sign. As an employer I like this as it saves me time. I often find with 'good' former employee's I edit UP reference that are to modest.

    Outline your resposibilites and any projects you felt you excelled at and remember the Golden Rule of why Corporate USA hires someone . To either/and/or increase revenues, reduce costs, improve quality of product/service, create new product/service.

    mitd-Made in the Dark
    'Interactive! Paper tape is interactive!
    If you don't believe me I can show you my paper cut scars!'

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