Reference Checking: Advice for Applicants

What factors should an applicant for a federal job consider when listing job references? Here are key points to consider before sending in your application.

The first two articles provided advice to reference checkers, while the next two were aimed at reference providers. This one offers food for thought to job applicants. It, like the previous articles, relies heavily on the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) Special Report, “Reference Checking in Federal Hiring: Making the Call.

As noted in the earlier articles, selecting officials check references because the job application process is largely one of self-evaluation and social scientists have found that the best predictor of future performance is past performance in similar circumstances. In other words, I know that I’m as good as I say I am, but selecting officials tend to want independent verification.

The MSPB Special Report states that “Applicants grant implied permission to check references when they apply for a job,” and that those who sign form OF-306 explicitly “acknowledge an agency’s right to contact previous employers and verify information about employment history.”

As an applicant, you should recognize that if you become a finalist for a vacancy, it is very likely that the agency is going to check at least some of your references. Applicants typically list all of their supervisors, with contact information, at least over a specified period of time (i.e., the last 10 years), on their applications, so this article is focused mainly on assisting you in choosing your “optional” references. The MSPB Special Report contains some very useful guidance on how to select those references, to wit:

“Choose Good Reference Providers.” The report opines that good reference providers are:

Familiar with the applicant’s recent job performance

The two key words here are “familiar” and “recent.” The more current the reference’s knowledge is of your job performance the more highly that person’s observations are likely to be valued by the selecting official. Someone who was very familiar with your job performance 20 years ago is not likely to be taken as seriously by a selecting official as someone who has observed your work in the very recent past.

Willingness to be reference providers

If someone is familiar with your recent job performance but expresses reluctance to serve as a reference, it would probably be counterproductive for you to list that person. Therefore, it is important that you talk to the potential reference providers in advance to be sure you have their permission to list them and to try and ascertain if they are genuinely willing to serve in that capacity.

If you list someone as a reference without their knowledge, you might be unpleasantly surprised by their response to the reference checker. Even if you have “blanket” approval to use a person as a reference, it is a good idea to talk with her/him about the specific job for which you are applying and to let them know that they may be contacted for a reference on you. I would offer the same advice with regard to the previous supervisors that you list, so that they will not be caught by surprise when a selecting official contacts them for a reference.
Easy to contact

The MSPB Special Report observes that “Applicants can demonstrate many of the qualities of a good employee by helping the reference checking process run smoothly. They should be responsive to requests to provide contact information and information about employment history.”

I agree wholeheartedly with that advice, and believe it is in your best interest to make reference checking as easy as possible for the selecting official. That means if there is “legwork” to be done in tracking down phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc., it is better for you to do it than to leave it to the selecting official.

For example, if a selecting official calls one of your references, and the person you listed is not at that number or the number is no longer in service, it is not likely to leave your potential boss with a positive impression of your thoroughness or initiative. Accordingly, I would advise you to make every effort to validate the phone numbers, mailing addresses, e-mail addresses, etc., of the contacts that you list on your application.

Experienced in describing and evaluating employee performance

This advice from MSPB strongly points applicants toward references who have supervisory experience, or at least team leader experience that involved evaluating employee performance. I would consider references with such experience to be the “gold standard,” but I think it is also possible to have very credible references who have not served as supervisors or team leaders but can knowledgeably and articulately comment on your job performance.

Effective communicators

It makes sense to me that MSPB would recommend that you choose effective communicators as references. If a reference cannot communicate effectively, that person may have every intention of helping you to obtain the position but may actually hurt your cause instead. This piece of advice should be fairly easy for you to follow, in that you presumably know potential references well enough to have a good feel for how effectively they could communicate information about you to a selecting official.
Careful to offer only accurate information and honestly held opinions

This is another aspect of picking references that will require you to exercise your judgment. How can you be sure that a reference will provide “only accurate information and honestly held opinions?” I don’t think you can be sure what any of your references will say to a selecting official, including how accurate or honest they will be. I believe that the best you can do is choose people you trust and whom you believe would provide accurate and honest responses to the questions asked by the reference checkers.

The MSPB Special Report wraps up this section by stating that “Reference providers who meet these criteria will represent applicants well in the reference checking process outlined here. However, deficiencies in any of these areas may reduce the potential reference provider’s impact, ultimately decreasing the chance that a deserving applicant is offered a job. A ‘good friend’ who promises to say ‘nice things’ about an applicant may not produce the intended result when questioned about specifics of job performance by a determined reference checker.”

I agree with MSPB’s observations, which reinforce the fact that applicants should give very careful consideration to the task of identifying references. In the next article, I will comment on the remainder of the MSPB Special Report’s advice to applicants and discuss the understandable concerns that many applicants have about giving the selecting official permission to contact their current supervisor.

About the Author

Steve Oppermann completed his Federal career on March 31, 1997, after more than 26 years of service, virtually all in human resources management. He served as Regional Director of Personnel for GSA and advised and represented management in six agencies during his federal career. Steve passed away after a battle with cancer on December 22, 2013.