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I am interviewing at some major software companies for senior engineer/scientist roles. My current boss is a very hands off kind of a guy, and is not very familiar with my precise roles and contributions to various projects, and may in fact even have a slightly negative view of me. I am very wary about listing him as a referee for my upcoming job interviews. But on the other hand it might look odd if I don't list him as a reference.

How often do software companies in general, and the big ones in particular (say for ex.Microsoft or Amazon), contact references for a reference letter? What information do they typically ask for?

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    If you don't think he would be a good reference, then don't list him as one. Also, it is very common to not list any references from your current company, since often searching for a job needs to be kept secret. – David K Apr 22 '16 at 15:19
  • I wouldn't use my current boss as my reference. Find a senior, or fellow developer, or some other person who would be able to make you look good. – AndreiROM Apr 22 '16 at 15:41
  • @David K What if you don't have (m)any other references? – Andrew Whatever Apr 22 '16 at 18:34
  • See this question, and this question, and this question; – David K Apr 22 '16 at 19:51
  • This depends on the company. In the UK the usual thing is to be offered a job subject to references. Most references these days are from HR and just list the time you spent there and your role. Also if you are disciplined (sacked/fired). Quite often if this is the case this will be left blank – Ed Heal Apr 22 '16 at 20:25
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If it is a big company there is a high probability of the references being called by someone in HR. In many cases the HR person will have a laundry list of standard questions to ask the reference. Things like: Why did the candidate leave your company? Would you hire this person again? Did they work well with others? Things like that.

A smaller company it is more of a crap shoot, but there is probably at least a 50-50 chance.

  • Hmm, that's interesting. Is this based on firsthand knowledge if I may ask? – andy Apr 22 '16 at 16:45
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    @andy Yes, in part. I have been in the work force at different levels of management for almost 30 years so I have a lot of experience. References I have given usually report that they were called and asked a bunch of generic questions such as those I listed. – Socrates Apr 22 '16 at 17:48
  • In the USA, many references will say nothing except that you worked there, due to legal reasons. Probably in other places as well. – gnasher729 May 2 '16 at 16:56
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How often do software companies in general, and the big ones in particular (say for ex.Microsoft or Amazon), contact references for a reference letter? What information do they typically ask for?

Very often.

I have both checked references when I was the hiring manager, and been called for a reference for others when they worked for me previously.

Things I am often asked:

  • When did [candidate] work for you?
  • What was your role with respect to [candidate]?
  • What would you say are [candidate]'s strengths?
  • What would you say are [candidate]'s weaknesses?
  • I am considering [candidate] for a position as a [title]. Do you think [she/he] would fit that role?
  • Why did [candidate] leave?
  • Would you hire [candidate] again?
  • As [candidate]'s new manager, is there anything I should know about [him/her] to manage [him/her] effectively?

If HR checks references, they often ask different questions. They often ask:

  • Specific dates of employment
  • Specific title
  • Specific salary when leaving
  • Specific reason for leaving

Occasionally, I get questions regarding something that was said during the interview, that the hiring manager wanted clarified.

  • [candidate] said that [she/he] didn't feel challenged at work. How do you feel about that?
  • [candidate] said that nobody was being promoted from within. Do you agree that was happening?
  • and other specifics

I never use a person as a reference who wouldn't give me a stellar review. And I always talk to my potential references ahead of time, tell them what I am doing, where I have interviewed, and ask if they would be a reference for me. And if there is any question in my mind at all, I always ask "Would you say good things about me?" I seldom have to ask that question, but I'd never want to lose a great job due to a weak reference. And I never want to put people on the spot if they would prefer not to be a reference for me.

I would almost never use my current boss as a reference, since I'd seldom want my current company to know I was planning to leave. Most potential employers will allow you to get by without a current reference, if you have sufficient prior references. If absolutely necessary, I use a trusted colleague aside from the boss at the current company.

  • Questions about the candidate's weaknesses and whether there is anything the new company "should know" about the candidate are extremely subjective. Why is it legal to ask and answer those questions? I would think a bad reference based on one of those questions exposes both former and potential employers to legal action for slander or discrimination. – Pedro Apr 23 '16 at 3:34
  • Do references actually say your ending salary (assuming US and they were in a position to know)? I was under the impression that information was typically not given out, and have even heard advice to exaggerate your salary as a starting point for negotiations. – user812786 Jul 8 '16 at 14:52
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In almost every case in my career (which is long), references are checked after the offer is made and the offer is made "pending background check" which includes the references.

In my current position they took close to a month to get all of that done because they went back 10 years. In rare cases, references weren't actually checked. Usually it's done to make sure you are who you say you are and that you're not a pathological liar in your interview and on your resume.

My experience has been the roughly the same across industries. However, what companies (software and other) ask for in my experience is the basics of "how long did you know?" and "did they work for you?" and other questions relating to "was it a positive experience, would you hire again?".

Lastly, I've never had a company check with my current employer because it's understood that you don't want to let your current employer know you're seeking work elsewhere. I have had a few ask that I provide some sort of proof that I indeed work there and a partial copy of my offer letter and (if I have one) a pic of my company ID (or an email from my internal email address) suffices.

  • they went back 10yrs for a simple background check (for ex. to verify dates of employment), or did they actually contact the references? – andy Apr 22 '16 at 16:42
  • Both. It was ridiculous, imho but they're one of the largest companies in the world so it's not like my objections would go anywhere. I actually had to track down a former boss from 2007. – Chris E Apr 22 '16 at 16:47
  • That's spooky, alright. What happens when there's a mismatch between the job responsibilities as listed on the resume vs. what the reference actually tells the HR? This is a real possibility in my case. – andy Apr 22 '16 at 16:54
  • @andy, when the background check is done, they rarely ask the companies you worked for anything other than to confirm you worked for them in the position you say you held, so lying about your title or the time periods you worked there is one of the easiest things to catch. Personal references may be asked other questions and they should only be people who you think will say good things about you. Lying on a resume is a big deal though, so if they catch you at it you will lose the offer or lose the job if you already work there even years later. – HLGEM Apr 22 '16 at 17:01
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    She's right. If you're outright lying, you need to fix that. But they're not going to do that kind of check where they compare in detail. With me, the real detail was along the lines of "when did he work for you" followed by "what did he do for you" and/or "what can you tell me about him" and that's it. For the one from 2007, the "what did he do for you" answer was along the lines of "He was a developer" and that was it. – Chris E Apr 22 '16 at 17:08
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Most of the time when recruiters ask for references, they'll call listing contacts in order to have an overview of how previous managers/colleagues might see you and how they consider your work.

It will not seem odd not to list you current boss in the reference list you'll submit as recruiters are well aware that when candidates are searching passively for new job position, your current company may not be aware of you wanting to leave.

Otherwise, if this current experience may really be in your favour and as you explained that your boss didn't even understand what you are doing, you could submit the contact of another manager/colleague who is well aware of your value in this job.

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