Are Reference Checks Still Relevant?

From time to time, we hear from candidates who want to know if reference checks are still relevant. It’s surprising how many job seekers believe references might be a thing of the past. 

The short answer here is an emphatic yes.  

This blog is about why employers are checking your references, what they’re looking for, and how a little bit of preparation on your end can have a substantial impact on the results of reference checks. Read on to learn more about this very important step in your job search and how it could be the deciding factor in landing an amazing new job.  

Why Do Employers Still Ask for References?  

Your resume will have a list of hard skills that show why you would be technically proficient for the role you’re applying for. For example, job seekers looking for an engineering role may include skills such as CAD design or CNC machine skills on their resume to name a few. But these skills, while very important, only tell half of your story.  

Employers know that their team member could have all the skills in the world but still be difficult to work with. And if that’s the case, most will say “hard pass.”  

But, understanding what it’ll really be like to work with you is one of the most difficult things that employers grapple with when considering you as a new hire. The best way to find this information is to call and speak with your professional and personal references. This is why reference checks are still relevant. They’re the best tool a prospective employer has in discovering what it will be like to work with you and whether you will be a good fit for their company.  

Personal vs. Professional References 

A personal reference is someone who can speak to your character, interpersonal skills and general work ethic, but who has not necessarily been your supervisor or coworker in a professional setting. Examples of personal references include friends, teachers or community leaders.  

A professional reference is someone who can speak to your qualifications, skills and job performance in a professional setting. Examples of professional references may include current or former supervisors, managers, colleagues or clients.  

Typically, employers prefer professional references. But that’s not to say that personal references aren’t important. Personal references can still be very valuable in certain situations, such as when a candidate is new to the workforce and has limited professional experience.  But professional references are more often the standard because they provide more detailed, unbiased and relevant information about your: 

  • Qualifications 
  • Skills 
  • Specific examples of your work 
  • Accomplishments 
  • Contributions 
  • Work performance 


It goes without saying that you should select professional references whom you’re certain have a positive impression of you. Get their permission before you list their contact information and make sure that they feel comfortable vouching for you. The key here is to be extra courteous and avoid assumptions. Some people simply don’t want to be listed as references for various reasons, so be sure to find out first.  

What Employers Will Ask  

It’s all about your qualifications, work ethic, work style, how you handle feedback and conflict, time and deadline management, and job performance. The purpose of checking your references is to gather additional information they can’t get from your resume or verify claims you make during your interview. Generally, employers check references provided by the candidate, but in some rare cases, they may also reach out to past supervisors or colleagues who were not listed as references. 

Some of the questions a prospective employer may ask a professional reference include: 

  1. Can you confirm the candidate’s job title, responsibilities and dates of employment? 
  2. Can you describe the candidate’s job performance and accomplishments while they were employed by your company? 
  3. In what areas did the candidate excel? 
  4. Can you share specific examples of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses? 
  5. How does the candidate handle workplace pressures and deadlines? 
  6. Can you describe the candidate’s work ethic, attitude, and communication skills? 
  7. How does the candidate work in a team? 
  8. Would you rehire the candidate? 
  9. Can you describe any specific situations in which the candidate went above and beyond expectations?


It’s worth noting that an employer may also ask some follow-up questions based on the reference’s responses. 

How Many References Should You Give?  

We suggest providing three references with a current phone number and email address with a caveat: “Additional references available upon request.” This will give your prospective employer more than enough information. But if they can’t reach your references, they’ll be able to follow up with you for more.  

What Should You Do if You Don’t Have References? 

It’s true that you need to have been employed to have a professional reference. But what if you’re applying for your first job and you don’t have any professional references?  

Job seekers without professional references have several options that can help employers shed light on your qualifications, skills and work ethic, such as:  

  1. Personal references 
  2. A letter of recommendation from a professor, teacher, mentor, academic advisor or fellow student 
  3. A letter of recommendation from someone you’ve mentored, taught or cared for (such as a neighbor whom you helped with yardwork, for example) 
  4. References from your place of worship, volunteer activities or other community involvement as you deem appropriate 
  5. Portfolio of samples  


The key here is to be honest and straightforward about your lack of professional references. Proactively providing an explanation will help hiring managers learn more about you through more in-depth conversation while you demonstrate integrity and creative problem-solving skills.  

It’s important for job seekers to remember that having no professional references is not an insurmountable obstacle in the job application process. Employers understand that not everyone has a long list of professional references, and they may be willing to consider other types of references or additional information provided by the job seeker.  

Pro Tip: Notify and Prepare Your References in Advance  

It’s always a good idea to give your references a heads up. Let them know your prospective employer may be giving them a call and confirm that they are still willing to provide a reference. This shows professional courtesy and respect to the person you’re asking to lend their time and insights in the name of your career advancement.  

Plus, letting them know you’ll be using them as a reference ahead of time will give them the opportunity to prepare what they’ll say about you. You can share the job description so that they’ll have an idea of what the employer is looking for. They’ll have time to think back on their time working with you and have specific examples or points ready to speak to your benefit. Additionally, they’ll be on the lookout for a strange phone number or email, which they might otherwise send to voicemail or even block. 

Looking for Your Next Job? Vector Technical Can Help. 

Now that you’re well on your way to having impeccable professional references, it’s time to think about what’s next for your career.  

If you need help in your job search, Vector Technical is here to help. We can coach you on how to identify and provide the most essential details of your resume and application, including references.  

Interested in having an expert partner who can set you up for success?  Contact Vector Technical today.