Are You the Right Fit?  Ask for References!

Many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away…   Nope, actually just a few years ago when I was coming out of college and looking for my first job, the common advice was to have “at the ready” at least three references.  I was advised to have these references on a separate sheet of paper with the people’s name, address, and phone number (yep, this was before email existed).  On my resume, I was instructed to have a standard line saying “references provided upon request.”

Now some of you reading this are nodding your heads “yes” in recognition of the scenario I just described.  Others of you are shaking your heads “no,” having no clue what I’m talking about!  🙂 

Suffice it to say that much has changed since my college days regarding how reference checks are requested and supplied.  Yet, it is still very common for an employer to want to get some type of reference from a candidate, so they can have another opportunity to screen the candidate they’re considering.  I’ll save my commentary on references and referrals for another blog. 

Overall, an employer’s reference checking has a great objective and conceptually the process makes sense. In fact, Scripture actually has a few “references” of something akin to reference checks…seeking out wise counsel.  Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”  Proverbs 12:15 states, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”   And finally, 1 John 4:1 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

Clue # 7: Reference Checking

Seeking counsel, getting advice from others, testing what’s been said, listening to others…all of those enable a person to gain wisdom and insight.  The employer’s reference checking process is taking heed of these and trying to obtain useful information to proof / triangulate what the candidate has shared with them about their past experiences.

So, to further figure out whether you might be the right fit for an organization, Clue #7 is simply suggesting you turn the tables on the employer and ask for references.  Now, I’m not suggesting at the close of your interview, this is one of the questions you ask the recruiter or hiring manager.  That may be construed as being a bit bold and over the top (plus, I don’t think the employer representative would quite know how to respond). 

Based on your work with Clues #2-6, you’ve gained access to enough information to have formed some opinions on the employer you’re considering.  What I am suggesting now is to move forward from discern (Clue #6) to a process of confirming what you’ve discerned.  After all, why should all the fun (and responsibility) be left up to the prospect employer?   When you’ve gotten to the point of feeling pretty comfortable that you’ve arrived at a good end game for accepting employment, then shift more intentionally into an investigative mode. 

4 Steps

First, make a point about talking / networking with people who have previously been employed by the employer you’re considering.  Past experience is the best indicator of future performance.

Second, specifically look for that employer’s vendors…people who have done business with that employer.  Many times, corporate culture leaks into how one entity treats another, so those vendors / business partners will have worthwhile opinions.

Third, get very specific with the questions you’re posing based on all you’ve learned up to this point.  After all, this is where the rubber meets the road, per se.

Fourth, go back to Clue #6 and Discern again.   And then back to Clue #1 and pray some more!

Does this seem like quite a bit of work?  It may, but hopefully as you’ve been networking you’ve gleaned enough information and contacts to make this process work fairly smoothly and without too much additional time.  BUT, even if it is a bit of work, isn’t it worth it?  After all, your job is where you’ll spend the majority of your waking hours.  Don’t we all want to be in a place where we fit?!?

Dave Sparkman currently serves as the volunteer Crossroads Career board chair and local ministry leader. He is also the founder and managing director of Spark Your Culture, a corporate culture consulting firm. Prior to that he worked at UnitedHealth Group, a Fortune #5 public company, serving in the role of Chief Culture Officer. His unemployment experience came from the implosion of Arthur Andersen, where he served as the West Region Managing Partner, People.


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