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The Ultimate Guide to Passing Background & Reference Checks

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Many job seekers don’t fully realize the important role reference and background checks play in the hiring process for scores of businesses. A stellar resume and knock-their-socks-off interview will only get you so far in today’s competitive job market.

Beyond that, choosing the right references and soaring through a background check can open doors that would otherwise be closed. Elizabeth Magill brings you the ultimate guide to remarkable references and beneficial background checks.

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Just how important are reference checks? Well, if you guessed that one in five job candidates would be discarded from consideration during the hiring process as a result of a reference check, you’d be right, at least according to a recent Office Team survey.

Additional revealing aspects of the OfficeTeam survey detail the things hiring managers are looking for when contacting references:

• Thirty-six percent of hiring managers were looking for information about previous duties and responsibilities.

• Thirty-one percent were interested in learning about the strengths and weaknesses of their prospective employees.

Regarding background checks, organizations conduct background checks primarily for their own due diligence to avoid negligent hiring. After all, 53 percent of job applicants list untruths on their resumes, reports Business.com.

A background check not only helps to protect the company, its employees, and customers, but also ensures that the prospective employee is who she says she is. Quality job seekers understand this need and comply.

The Mission of This Guide: Getting hired may very well depend on what is revealed in your reference and background check. This guide serves to educate on the nuts and bolts of reference and background checks and to help job applicants proactively deal with challenges that each can present.

Part I: The Reference Check


Reference checks are no longer mere formalities on the application page. Employers take references seriously because they know invaluable information can be gleaned from the things said — as well as the things left unspoken. This is also one of the primary reasons to choose your references wisely, which will be covered below. First, though it’s important to understand some background information and best practices regarding the reference check process.

When during the hiring process do employers conduct a reference check?

The answer is: it depends. Depending on the job, employers generally time the reference check before or after the interview process. Sometimes, it’s a matter of expedience, while other times the timing is deliberate.

Northern Arizona University, for instance, recommends that employers conduct a reference check prior to the interview in order to weed out candidates who may not be a good fit and make the interview pool more manageable.

On the other hand, Virginia Tech notes that the best time to conduct a reference check is after the interview. In addition, the university recommends employers check references only for those deemed as top choice candidates after the interviewing process.

Each timing choice has its merit, and a prepared job seeker has to be ready for both.

What can be asked during a reference check?

Potential employers are also learning ways to vault the old barriers by avoiding yes or no types of questions. Specifically, they’re looking for information on job responsibilities and experience, but they are also trying to determine if a job candidate is “fit” within their own company culture.

They can and do ask about your attitude, professionalism, work ethic, what your strengths and weaknesses are, why you left, and whether the reference/employer would hire you again, among other things.

What cannot be asked during a reference check?

The discrimination rules that are applicable to interviewing and hiring also apply to reference checking. Know that employers should be avoiding questions that may lead to unintentional bias in the reference checking process and include topics such as:

• Age
• Race
• Marital Status
• Religion
• Handicap/Disabilities

Obstacles Encountered During a Reference Check

On occasion, problems arise during the reference check. Obstacles, such as the ones described below, can be avoided if you adopt these simple solutions.

Obstacle 1: Many former employers are reluctant to answer questions that go beyond the basics of confirming employment dates.

Overcoming it: Take the initiative and contact your former supervisor yourself. Reconnect and let them know that you’re trying to get your dream job. Give them the opportunity to speak up for an old friend, rather than a former employer.

Obstacle 2: You’ve just graduated college and this will be your first job.

Overcoming it: Think outside the box. Solicit references from people who have worked on community service or volunteer projects with you as well as from professors you’ve worked with during your studies.

Getting Proactive About References


Before you dive right into the job application process or go into a marathon mailing of resumes, take a moment to reach out to your references in an effort to coordinate your strategy. Knowing who to choose as a reference and how to get a standout reference from someone are just two of the ways you can be proactive about your references.

How to Choose Who to Use as References

Choose references that will paint an honest representation of who you are as a person and an employee. Forbes.com reports that references presenting a different picture of you than the one you present yourself raises red flags with potential employers. Ultimately, the right references can make or break your attempts to land the job you seek.

How to Approach People about Being Your References

It’s important to reach out to a potential reference before using them as a reference. Send an email, make a phone call, or visit your potential reference in person in order to ask them to provide a reference for you.

Action Tip: Don’t forget to follow up and let them know how things went. Most important of all, let them know how much you appreciate their willingness to help you get your dream job. Sending a thank you note is great.

How to Get a Standout Reference from Someone

Forbes reminds applicants to share a copy of their resume with their references. In this way, the reference knows the type of position you’re applying for and the qualities and characteristics you’re hoping to highlight.

Make them feel as if their reference will make or break this career opportunity for you. Give them adequate time to prepare what they’re going to say. They need more than one or two days’ worth of notice if you want a stellar reference from them.

How to Showcase Great References in an Application/Interview

Bring your reference letters along with you to all interviews and leave a copy when you go. This lets the interviewers know you’re organized and reinforces some of the characteristics mentioned in the letters. Use quotes from former employers or professors to do the talking when interviewers ask certain questions. Do this on a limited basis though, and don’t overdo it.

Tip: University of Denver Career Services suggests that you consider using snippets or excerpts from reference letters as part of your cover letter or resume. It’s also one last chance to showcase your qualifications as you exit the room.

How to use LinkedIn for References and/or Testimonials

LinkedIn makes soliciting references and testimonials, as well as displaying them, truly painless. Don’t simply settle for endorsements, however, as they offer less real insight into the type of employee you are, only the skills you possess. Instead — or better yet, in addition to — seek out recommendations. Recommendations on LinkedIn go beyond an endorsement and provide a written reference supporting you and your work.

Of course, the reference that carries the most weight as far as LinkedIn references go is your current or most recent employer. However, a solid reference from any employer is nice to have.

Sample Snippets of Great References in Letters or LinkedIn References

Writing a great reference isn’t always easy. Most people don’t write reference letters or recommendations very often. However, these samples are the types of references that really get attention.

“Jack hit the ground running from day one. Not only was he a real go-getter, but he was also a fun person to work with. He’ll be sorely missed around here.”

“Hannah had a unique way of making coworkers and customers feel like they are the most important people in the world. It was her organizational ability, though, that really stole the show.”

“Greg was one of those workers you could always count on to get the job done right, the first time, and on time. Too bad we can’t have more like him.”

These are small snippets of references that provide insight into the personality, work ethic, and experience of the candidates. They are also examples of the type of information employers are looking for.

Action tip: Don’t forget to take a moment and send a “Thank You” card or gift to everyone who took the time to write a letter of reference or recommendation for you.

How to Proactively Deal with Reference Challenges

Certain situations may present as challenges as far as your good reference remarks go, particularly if you don’t find a way to deal with them head on. These examples will help you develop a strategy to overcome a few sticky reference challenges.

Challenge 1: Bad Relationship with a Previous Boss

Overcoming it: The situation is trickiest if it’s your most recent boss that you’re worried about. GlobalPost.com recommends several actions you must take to deal with this effectively. First, provide plenty of good references to counterbalance the bad. Seek out references from others that you worked with closely at that job so that you can demonstrate the positive side of your time in the role.

Second, if you know that the prospective employer will be calling the boss for a reference, be honest in advance about the lack of a glowing reference from your previous manager (while planning carefully how to communicate the situation without being negative or raising red flags). Finally, explain what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown from the situation to aid in future work relationships.

Note from Pam: One of my clients had a strained relationship with his current boss, but was required to provide the boss as a reference for his dream job. He was worried that a negative or even lukewarm reference would spoil his chances when he was in the final stretch of getting the offer. He proactively called the prospective employer to explain the situation and make his case for why the boss’ reference wasn’t the full story (using other senior-level references at his company to back him up). He got the job despite a weak reference from his supervisor.

Challenge 2: Fear of Retaliation from Employer

Overcoming it: This is a common albeit sticky situation for people in the market for a new job. Whether it’s a new career path you seek or a hasty exit from a work environment that’s no longer in your best interests, you can’t afford to alienate your current employer. You don’t want to advertise that you’re looking for a new job. Most prospective employers understand this and won’t demand a reference from your current employer. Consider offering references from former coworkers or managers who are no longer employed by your firm instead. These people are well qualified to analyze your job performance and work ethic without placing your current job at risk.

Part II: The Background Check


Like the reference check, the background check plays an important role in the hiring process, particularly in certain jobs, such as those involving handling money or working with children, more so than others.

Today, a majority of companies view the background check as a necessity, rather than an option. A thorough background check of a prospective employee protects employees, customers, partners, suppliers — just about anyone who does business with that company.

With the plethora of cases related to employee theft, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, dishonesty, and fraud, a background check can protect a company from becoming liable or accountable as a result of hiring an employee that has these types of predispositions or tendencies — and acts upon them.

What Employers Can Check

In many cases, background checks are used to verify things like:

• Degree Status
• Credit History
• Criminal History
• Verify Employment Dates
• Verify College Attendance
• Driving Records
• Professional Licenses or Certifications

While some businesses do allow candidates the opportunity to address issues that may arise in the course of a credit background check, 13 percent of employers do not allow job candidates to explain their credit or background reports at any time, according to the SHRM Survey on Credit Background Checks.

What Legalities Job Seekers Should Be Aware Of

Employers that use a third party for a background check on a job applicant are covered by the The Fair Credit Reporting Act. This means that an employer must get the job applicant’s permission in writing prior to conducting a background check.

Another legality to be aware of is your right to know if something revealed in your background check is the reason you are passed over for a job. The Fair Credit Reporting Act is very specific about the things employers can and cannot use as reasons to reject job candidates. Make sure you aren’t illegally removed from consideration.

Timing of the Background Check

EmployeeScreen.com provides this breakdown of when employers conduct background checks.

When Do Employers Run Background Checks?

Before the offer43 percent

After the offer39 percent

After pre-qualifying job candidate14 percent

Before job start date5 percent

As far as the credit check, most businesses, 57 percent of those who order credit checks, do not do so until after making a contingent job offer. An additional 30 percent of companies check backgrounds after the interview is complete but before making an official offer.

Challenges Encountered During the Background Check

The key to dealing with background check challenges is to be proactive rather than allowing the background check to derail your efforts to land the job you want, or worse, to catch you off guard and completely unaware.

Challenge 1: You’re unsure what will come up in your credit check.

Overcoming it: If you have credit history issues, try to clean it up or dispute it if there are errors. You can check your credit with each of three main credit reporting agencies — Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion — once a year free of charge.

Knowing what’s in your credit report can help you plan ahead and get in front of potential problems in the interview process. Turn past mistakes around, for instance, and let your interviewer know how you’re making efforts to correct those mistakes and the valuable lessons you’ve learned in the process.

Keep in mind that it takes time to see positive changes on your credit report – address the issues now and avoid problems in the future.

Challenge 2: You don’t know what a background check will reveal.

Overcoming it: Once again, the best thing you can do is find out for yourself what your background check has to say about you. One way to do this is to go to a site such as MyBackgroundCheck.com. Not only can you conduct your own background check, for a small fee, but you can also learn about various steps to clean up your background check.

Final Thoughts

From knowing how to answer the Why Should We Hire You? question to making your resume stand out, today’s job seeker faces enough challenges trying to get the job he or she really wants — or needs. Don’t let details, like references and background checks, derail your efforts to land your dream job. Instead, put this guide to work for yourself today and stay on top of your job search situation.

Here’s an interesting news report about what employers are doing to vet candidates:

Main Photo Credit: nicolas_gent

Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

61 Comment to The Ultimate Guide to Passing Background & Reference Checks

  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • J. Williams

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  • FeeFee

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