No Professional References? Something Smells Fishy

Professional references are important to both job seekers and potential employers. An instant red flag is not only raised, but vigorously waved when job candidates do not provide credible professional references on their resumes or during the interview process. Almost as important as what references tell you about a candidate is the candidate’s choice in referrals. Kathryn Ullrich, a California-based author and executive search consultant, calls them the “fishy” reference choices, and they can range from too few names given, to the wrong types of names.

“As an executive recruiter for 12 years, I’ve learned that when references smell fishy, they probably are. You have to trust your instincts,” Ullrich says.

“One VP sales candidate could not provide professional references from a boss because his current CEO was out of the country on a honeymoon, and his previous CEO was on the board of a second company he was interviewing with,” she says.

So instead, he gave her six references from peers and people who worked for him — all glowing references of how they loved working with this VP.

“One of his peers said something that made me start digging deeper: ‘He doesn’t catch curve balls well,’” says Ullrich. “After another half dozen references and tracking down the current CEO, who was not on his honeymoon, I learned that this candidate did not do well when the economy dipped. He was fine riding an up market, but did not hold his team accountable and did not deliver sales during a down economy. Obviously, this candidate was not going to work well in a down economy, and he did not get the offer.”

This example reveals how the candidate’s choice in references can be questionable. If a candidate doesn’t give employers, and only provides peers and employees, that can be a problem. Here are other tips regarding suspect references from Ullrich:

1. When a candidate produces too few employment references, ask yourself why.


Ullrich likes to talk to the full spectrum: Peers, employers, employees, customers. Also, she asks for three to six or even more references.

“People who have done a great job usually have 10-15 references,” Ullrich says. “One candidate came up with six references, but none of them were employers, just peers and employees.”

2. When a candidate is slow to produce professional references.


That can mean they don’t have any to share. However, it can also be that the candidate is simply having difficulty reaching a reference, so be sure to ask.

3. When the references do not return calls.

That’s a signal that they may not have been alerted that they would be called or that they have nothing good to say.

4. When professional references are from long ago.

It can be an issue of politics, or it may be about a buyout and change of management. Don’t be afraid to ask.

“When professional employment references are old,” Ullrich says, “you have to understand why.”

Another reason for stale references can be because the candidate peaked and has not grown professionally since then.

“You can piece it together from other people,” she says. “If it’s a friend, the information won’t have as much weight; but from a peer, it has more weight.”

5. When the references have not worked directly with the candidate and therefore cannot provide any in-depth answers.


In one case, Ullrich had a graduating MBA student with references before business school that were really good, but the third, an adviser for the candidate’s summer internship, offered little of value, because he didn’t have details.

When a professional reference can’t talk about strengths, but only offers that the candidate shows up on time, then it’s not a quality reference, Ullrich says. Positive references from a range of contacts provide valuable support information in selecting the right person for the right job.