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Recruiters reveal exactly what they're asking your references

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  • References are the second-most used candidate screening method, according to SkillSurvey.
  • Recruiters will ask your references to rank how you perform certain skills. 
  • They fact-check what you've already told them. 
  • Recruiters will also ask questions to find out how you act in the office.
  • Remember: it's usually a good sign if your references are called. 

You've aced your interviews and the job is almost yours, but the fate of your employment could rest in the hands of someone else: your reference. Just when you thought the hiring process couldn't get more nerve-wracking, it does.

You're left wondering: "What will my reference say about me? What will the recruiter ask about? Did I say something wrong?"

You're not crazy—yes, recruiters and references are talking about you behind your back, but it's all part of the hiring process. A recent study by online reference checking provider SkillSurvey found that reference checking is the second most-used candidate screening or assessment method, with 86% of reference checks being conducted before a company extends an offer.

With all that talking happening behind your back, surely you've been curious about what recruiters really do during a reference check—and we've got the answers.

Recruiters ask references to judge your skills

Reference checks give recruiters the chance to speak with your former manager or co-workers in order to learn more about your work history, performance, and professionalism. So how do they go about this? Jenny Foss, a career strategist and recruiter based in Portland, Oregon, explains that, when conducting a reference check, her agency uses a checklist that asks the reference to rank each specific skill and strength they call out, with an explanation for their rating.

"This way, the person can't just say, "Yes, she's great. She will do great,'" Foss says.

Recruiters ask references to fact-check what you've already told them

When a recruiter calls a reference, they aren't just looking to hear good things about you. Rather, they're digging deep into their research to determine if the way you've represented yourself aligns with your previous employer's assessment of your performance.

According to Carlie Smith, senior talent manager at OpenView Venture Partners, a venture capitalist firm in Boston, conducting a reference call provides an opportunity for recruiters to ask questions about a red flag or concern that has arisen during the hiring process.

If your reference gives you a bad recommendation, this could impact your chances, which is why Foss advises you to always touch base with your references before having a potential employer contact them.

"Candidates should specifically ask their reference, ‘Can I count on you to give me a favorable reference?' If there's any hesitation, pick someone else," she says.

Recruiters ask references what you're like in the office

Who you list as a reference matters. Smith explains that recruiters want to find out the reference's relationship to the candidate to gauge the quality of the data they are providing.

That's why it's recommended you provide references who have worked alongside you or directly managed you as an employee because this helps recruiters understand what it's like to work with you.

If you provide this type of reference, Smith says recruiters will ask the following types of questions: How would this person best be managed? In what areas will he or she need additional coaching or support? How far do you see this person growing professionally?

Recruiters just want to learn more about you and make sure that, before handing you an offer, they truly believe you are the right fit for the company.

Remember this: When a hiring company makes a call to your references, it's almost always a good sign—so you can breathe easy. A reference check typically means a hiring manager is near-ready to extend an offer to a candidate, and they want one final confirmation that you are the right fit for their team, Foss says.

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