employers that ask for references but never call them

A reader writes:

I have a question that’s more of a curiosity than a pressing concern, since I’m currently happily employed.

When I was searching for a job, I had two in-person interviews (each preceded by a phone interview) that seemed to go really well. Both teams of interviewers asked me for references, which I had brought along. In both instances, I contacted my references to give them a heads-up that they would probably receive a phone call — except they didn’t! Is it normal for people to ask for references and then not bother to call them? Do some hiring managers just do it as a perfunctory thing at the end of an interview?

I found it weird and sort of embarrassing to tell my references that they would get a call that never came. Is it a faux pas on their part or just an awkward-but-normal move? This was my first big job search after grad school so I wasn’t really sure what to expect (if only I’d had your site then!)

This is actually pretty common. It’s usually either because (a) they’re only going to call the references of the person they might an offer to but they haven’t yet decided who that will be, or (b) they suck at hiring. I’ll elaborate on both.

In the first category, employers nearly always only check references toward the very end of the hiring process — calling the references only of the person who they plan to make an offer to, or sometimes calling the references of their top two or three candidates, to help them make a decision. However, they’ll often ask for references earlier in the process, before they know which candidates they’ll actually want to check references on — so that once they’re ready to start reference checks, they already have the information that they need.

(In fact, some employers go so far as to ask for references with the initial application, which really annoys me — there’s no reason they need to collect that information from hundreds of people, when ultimately they’ll only need it for a few. They should wait until the interview stage, at least.)

In any case, it’s common to be asked for references once you make it to the interview stage so that they’re prepared if you do end up being a finalist.

And then there are the employers who just suck at hiring. These are the employers who ask for references because they know they’re supposed to but then end up not actually calling those references because (a) they’re lazy, (b) don’t realize how crucial it is to be thorough in something as important as selecting someone to hire, and/or (c) they don’t believe that reference-checking is that useful, generally because they’re doing it wrong. This last group is people who have done perfunctory reference checks that don’t ask particularly probing questions, and thus have come to believe that they don’t yield useful information. These are the people who say things like, “No one ever offers up references who will say bad things about them anyway” — which ignores that point that a good reference checking process isn’t about yes/no answers, but about nuance … and which also ignores the fact that employers can (and should) ask for other references if someone hasn’t offered up the ones the hiring manager is most interested in talking to (i.e., managers rather than peers, and especially managers from the most recent or most relevant positions).

As for whether you committed a faux paus in telling your references to expect a call that never came, absolutely not! This is really normal. You might want to phrase it in the future as “You might be getting a call from X about position Y,” rather than “you will be hearing from X in the coming days,” but either way, this is so common that you shouldn’t worry about it at all.

One thing that you should worry about: If you get a job offer from a company that you know never checked your references — and which doesn’t already have plenty of first-hand experience working with you. That’s a signal to you that this company might not have especially strong hiring — and hence management — practices, and that you should make sure you’ve really explored the culture and the manager and know that it’s a place you do want to work.

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