Employers, Job Seekers, and Everyone in Between: Here’s What You Need to Know About References

Employers, Job Seekers, and Everyone in Between: Here’s What You Need to Know About References

Ray Bixler, CEO of SkillSurvey, believes that references are “more important than ever.”
“Think about the ability of a job applicant to prepare for an interview,” Bixler says. Today’s job seekers are experts in selling themselves. They turn to books and online classes to become better interviewees. They have services to write cover letters and resumes for them. They use lists of interview questions to prep their answers ahead of time. Heck, they even have websites like, updated daily with all sorts of new tips and tricks for job seekers.
“Applicants can be more prepared than ever,” Bixler says. “Applicants look better than they ever have in previous generations, because of all the online help.”
While the abundance of resources may be a boon for job seekers, it makes hiring much more difficult. When every single candidate looks like the cream of the crop, how do employers winnow the wheat from the chaff?
According to Bixler, employers can get the best understanding of a candidate by listening to their references. “If you don’t invite in other points of view, then, really, at the end of the day, you’re taking the applicant’s word only before you make a hiring decision,” he explains.
As we’ve seen in the past, though, reference checks often bring employers little useful information. Bixler’s company, SkillSurvey, looks to change that. Specializing in online reference-checking software, SkillSurvey — which was recently awarded U.S. patent No. 8,721,340 for the Pre-Hire 360 software – is designed to make it easy for references to give useful, detailed information about candidates. Bixler says this allows an employer to get a much better understanding of a candidate: rather than one or two useless phone-based reference checks, SkillSurvey can bring in five or six in-depth reports about a candidate from various references. The system seems to be working: SkillSurvey has an 85 percent response rate, and companies that use the software report, on average, a 69 percent reduction in the number of employees terminated for cause.
“We know that applicants that are more favorably rated [by references] outperform applicants who are less favorably rated if both are hired,” Bixler says.
References — if done well — can be a powerful tool for employers. But what does this mean for applicants?
Redeeming Millennials through Reference Checks
For the millennial workforce, references could be a blessing, Bixler says.
SkillSurvey recently conducted a study of what references were saying about the oft-maligned generation. Diving into what Bixler calls the “data cave,” SkillSurvey’s data scientists analyzed almost 200 million data points in the SkillSurvey database to see how references viewed millennials in seven common entry-level positions: engineer, finance, IT, registered nurse, sales/business development, sales/account management, and customer service. The results belied the received wisdom that millennials are lazy, entitled narcissists. Per the study: “References consistently rated candidates highest on values including trustworthiness, respect for diversity, ethics, and integrity. Other common top areas included dedication to doing a good job, taking responsibility, and dependability.”
“From the references of millennials, their points of view are, actually, [millennials] are not lazy,” Bixler says. “They’re not as demanding as we might think, and they’re not as entitled as we all believe. In fact, they’re very eager and dedicated. They are responsible for their actions and very dependable.”
Of course, millennials are not perfect. No group is. SkillSurvey’s study also compiled a list of the most commonly-cited weaknesses of entry-level employees in these seven fields, which you can view in full here.
By compiling these weaknesses, however, SkillSurvey does not mean to suggest that millennials are flawed as a whole. “Our point to the article was: make sure that, when you are interviewing with people, that you can actually demonstrate [your strengths],” Bixler explains. “Come prepared to show that you can present information in a logical, compelling, manner, that you can manage your time very well.”
In short: millennials — any job candidate, really – can use SkillSurvey’s study to pinpoint the strengths they need to show potential employers, who may not be too keen on their generation. “There is an audience that is certainly, at its worst, biased, and at its best, probably skeptical about you, as a millennial, as a group of people,” Bixler says. “Be prepared in the interview to demonstrate that you’re not that.
“I think what’s really important here is that millennials should be reading all of the things that we’re reading,” Bixler says. “When I saw ‘we’: VPs of talent acquisition, directors of recruiting, recruiters. There is that bias: that millennials are entitled and lazy. They should come prepared to demonstrate that they’re not all that.”
How to Have the Best Possible References, No Matter Who You Are
But millennials have to do more than just demonstrate their strengths — because, as mentioned earlier, the power of a reference’s word comes from the fact that the reference is not the applicant. An applicant can demonstrate strengths all they want, but those strengths are much more believable if the applicant has a reference to back them up.
Here, the advice that Bixler gives applies to all job seekers, regardless of the generation they belong to or the industry they operate in: candidates need to cultivate their references. “Don’t just hand over some names and email addresses. Reach out to those references. Meet them for a cup of coffee or over lunch,” Bixler says. “Keep them updated on your progress as to who you’re interviewing with or jobs that you’ve been doing. Let your references know that you want them to be a reference, and that you also want to update them on what you’ve been doing.”
Candidates need good references, because employers want to see proof of a candidate’s potential value to their company. References can only be good references if candidates build and maintain strong relationships with them. That way, references can provide clear and specific examples of a candidate’s strengths, rather than limply generic praise.
“Demonstrate [your strengths],” Bixler tells job seekers, “but then also educate your references so that, when your references are contacted, they’re well-briefed about your experiences.”

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