There’s No Such Thing As “References Available Upon Request”

Recently, a friend of mine who is job searching asked about a prospective employer who called his former boss.

“I did not provided any references during the interview process with Company X, but the manager called my old boss to ask about me. I didn’t know he was going to contact him, so I didn’t give my former boss a heads up. Can companies do that?”

Oh, yes. They can.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I do not know the intricacies of reference checks and what an employer can legally share about a former employee with his/her prospective employer. Sometimes though (maybe even often), what an employer can and cannot do, legally, makes little difference to whomever is handling the interview process – especially if that person is not an HR person (who, in theory, should know the legalities of checking references…but may also know ways around those laws).

Regardless, social media and the many ways in which we are all connected online make it easier than ever for a prospective employer to find contact information for your former supervisors and co-workers. It’s pretty simple to track down former customers, clients, professors and business partners alike.

Think about your last summer job, internship, or part-time job. Did your boss have a solid understanding of your work performance, what you accomplished, and how you contributed to the organization? Did your boss’s boss know? Your co-workers? Do your co-workers and customers know what you stand for?

Do they know your personal brand and see your actions reflect that brand every time you come to work?

They better.

LinkedIn, Google, Twitter and face-to-face networking are all excellent resources for a job seeker, and they are used by HR staffers, managers, and others involved in the hiring process to figure out who can shed some light on your personality and work. Catching a reference off guard, without advance warning or prep by the job applicant, increases the likelihood of a prospective employer obtaining unfiltered, unrehearsed and uncensored feedback regarding a potential hire.

As an employee or a job seeker, this means you should be:

  • Communicating your brand accurately, in words and actions, to everyone with whom you work or interact
  • Getting to know colleagues beyond your department, division or inner circle
  • Making sure  your value and unique contributions are strong enough to overshadow personality conflicts or weaknesses

It is not a popularity contest or a reason to suck-up profusely to everyone around you. It’s about being consistent during all of your interactions and in all your work.

There is a reason career advisors, coaches and resume writers tell job seekers to cross off “References Available Upon Request” from their resumes. It’s because employers understand and expect that references are ALWAYS readily available, whether the applicant supplies them or not.

Can your brand withstand an unannounced reference check?


Kelly is a career advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she assists undergraduate business students with all aspects of their career development. Kelly received her masters degree in Higher Education/Student Personnel Administration from New York University, and her bachelors degree from UW-Madison, where she majored in Political Science and Women’s Studies. Connect with Kelly on Twitter, LinkedIn or BrazenCareerist.

Related posts:

  1. Your References Are More Important Than You Think
  2. Independent Job Search – A Thing of the Past
  3. Get a Job That Doesn’t Exist (Yet)

3 Responses to “There’s No Such Thing As “References Available Upon Request””

  1. It’s a scary thought, but this can definitely happen.

    This post is a great reminder that it’s important to try your hardest to keep from burning bridges at your previous positions. If you left on good terms, you should have nothing to worry about. A good way to do this is ask for an evaluation (or exit interview) before you leave your position. This will give you and your boss an opportunity to talk about why you are leaving and address any previous problems.

  2. avatar Kelly Cuene says:

    Heather, I love the idea of asking for an exit interview/evaluation/meeting. It could also be a good time to review with a supervisor where you have left off in regards to projects or other in-progress tasks. This makes it easier for others to pick up the work, which makes the transition easier on the supervisor and/or team.

    Thanks for the great tip!

  3. avatar John Weitzel says:

    There are several ways that a former supervisor can say, “Yes, he (she) worked here” Tone of voice is very telling. The key thing would be to ask for a letter of recommendation from previous employers (including internship or volunteer supervisors) and attach it to the resume you submit at the beginning of the interview.

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