Editors note: LinkedIn is now in a class action lawsuit over this feature and the arguments are very compelling. You can read them here: LinkedIn Could be Costing You Your Job

Ok. Let’s just get this out of the way. When someone has a premium LinkedIn account, they can pull up a list of contacts that you “may” both have in common.

This feature is called, “Search for references”.

If someone does a reference check on you, they get list of their own 1st or 2nd degree connections that may have had some overlap with your work or education history.

The feature got rolled out on the down-low and there hasn’t been much talk about it.

Here’s what the feature looks like (pretty hard to find actually, can you find “Search for references”?)

LI search references

I say, “may” have some overlap. Truth is, I’ve not found it very accurate. The time frames don’t always match and some of the shared companies don’t match when I’ve tested this feature

First, the results only show my own 1st and 2nd degree connections, not the person I’m checking up on. So it’s not like I’m invading their address book.

Second, the results are tenuous at best. They might have gone to the same school at some point, they may have worked in the same company at some point.

Here’s how you can choose which connections to see:

LI reference search options

Finally, with all of this social media job search “stuff”, it’s important to look at context. Just like how the context of a resume is not the same as a LinkedIn profile, the context when someone actually does a reference search is telling.

If they bother to even use this much unknown feature, they must have already built some kind of interest in you as a candidate. They are really digging. And they wouldn’t be digging if they didn’t already like you. Recruiters are too busy to research B candidates. So even if they did call a jerk-boss, would that be enough to dissuade someone who’s already made up their mind? The answer is “maybe”. Not a huge red flag for me.

My verdict, as a reference checker, I’m not guaranteed to get a list of people who would even know the person I’m checking up on, let alone find their jerk-boss who would say something nasty about them.

This feature just seems lame to me, and maybe a complete waste of time for any hiring manager who can just as easily ask a candidate for an actual list of past bosses or contact any number of people who’ve left a recommendation or endorsed a skill.

No biggie, right?

Until one day, I got this tweet:

My initial reaction was, “Wow. That’s an odd way to ask for a feature request.” So I responded with

But she wouldn’t relent.

Curious, I responded.

Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t really see a problem.

Her argument is that people with jerk bosses will become victims of said bosses anytime some future boss performs a LinkedIn references search.

I agree, that would suck for someone, but there are ways to manage a bad reputation (like not including those jobs in your LI profile so that people working there don’t show up in a reference check…or that most companies have strict rules about what you can say about past employees.)

So I turned to my list of amazing subscribers to get their response.

I had 30 thoughtful responses

76.7% said they really didn’t see a problem
23.3% said they were bothered by it.

Screenshot 2014-09-05 09.07.20

Almost a quarter of my readers agree with Lisa’s stance. That’s a pretty good number.

So although I don’t really see the problem, I will concede that enough people do, and therefore, is worth LinkedIn’s time to look into other ways to deliver this feature.

I got many great responses, many with tips for people concerned about this issue from recruiters and HR professionals. I’ve compiled them here in case you want to dive in.

Agrees with Lisa:

Generally, this is not necessarily a negative. However, for anyone who cannot safely assume that they will get a good reference from any of their employers, this will hurt them. The interview provides the opportunity to address potential negative references. They won’t get that opportunity if an employer learns something negative beforehand. Yes, it is worth petitioning LinkedIn.

  • LG

I agree with the tweeter.

While most references will say something good or positive, they can use this opportunity to undermine your professional growth and even hurt you by giving a poor reference or by simply stating “I won’t ever rehire him/her”.

It may simply be driven by dislike, disagreement or misuse of power. Most corporate policy prevents them from doing this but there is nothing to stop them on Linkedin.

  • CS

Employees, and potential employees, have much less control over their work lives than in times of a better economy. Therefore, I would like to maintain the tradition of employers asking and getting permission for references as much as possible.

  • RAC

It is a valid question. However some companies have a policy of not allowing their employees to provide references for current or even former employees. A company in my past only allowed HR to take calls about former or even current employees. HR would only confirm that the candidate did work for that company.

I could not find in LinkedIn how I would designate a contact as a ‘reference’. It does appear premium accounts can search for references but I am not sure what the search results return. But I would not have an issue with companies checking any reference on LinkedIn if I can designate that reference.

Some questions that pop up: Are these references viewable to ‘all’, ‘selected connections’, ‘first connections’ etc? How do you apply restrictions for that viewing? Can I as a connection to a LinkedIn member indicate I am willing to be a reference for a LinkedIn connection? How is that presented in my profile and again who can see that? Or when you write a recommendation for a connection, maybe you can somehow indicate your willingness to be a reference for this connection?

All interesting.


I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to list your references on LI or on your resume. That step is saved for when a job offer is ready to be made. However, if you are speaking of endorsements found on a LI profile, I can see where someone could “check your references” before you even have a conversation with them. Personally, I think it’s not the best way to go about things. First, a potential employee should be allowed to submit the references they choose and these people should get a heads up that someone may be calling them.

If someone called me out of the blue and asked about a co-worker, I would take their name and number and get back with them after I spoke with the person of interest. I would want to ask my co-worker what kind of information I could give out or even give the person calling an inference that the individual is actually looking for a job.

Everything I have learned in my career follows these steps. People can be cruel…it’s a fact of life. It doesn’t matter if it’s off of LI or the moon, not everyone is professional and they could hurt someone’s career. I write LI profiles for people who are going to be looking for another job for one reason or another and they do get concerned that someone at their company is going to notice changes being made and assume their co-worker wants to leave the company. What happens when this gets back to your boss before you even start applying for other positions…

What I normally do when I write a profile is to tell the individual to turn off their broadcast settings until finished with their update. Then, turn them back on in the wee hours of the morning and your updates will most likely get buried in traffic.

That being said, when you make your information public, you have to be prepared that things like this can happen. LI is a very professional site and people have seemed to respect that. It is the one site that I would tell people feel free to list n their resume.
I would hope that anyone of my connections would rate me with an A+, but some people just aren’t that great at answering questions or being proper with their responses as you would like and that’s why you pick your references and give them a heads up that they may receive a call.

I think I’m a pretty nice person who shows respect and works hard, but I don’t want someone I used to work with telling a potential employer that “yeah, she’s great and we always had fun when our group would go out for beers after work. This one time (20 years ago) Lisa got tipsy and sang Karaoke and she can’t hold a tune. It was so bad that we put our fingers in our ears and claimed that we had only met her that night!”

I hope this kind of shows you where I’m coming from AND just so you know, don’t plan on hiring me as a singer at any event you are having..unless your goal is to have your guests leave early :))))

  • LJ

I think a reference is someone you have chosen to represent you, not some random person. Like you, I believe (hope) folks would have nice things to say, but if one is applying for a positon and is asked to provide references then those are the people they should contact. Just my thoughts!

  • XC

Regarding references – In my opinion, it’s not so much that they are private, but what will your references say about you?

I was always taught to ask permission prior to giving a name for a reference. This will give your reference a heads-up that they be contacted to provide a reference for you. It’s also considerate and said to be a good business practice.


Agrees with me:

Someone must be kidding!! I think the ability for an employer to check recommendations on a profile are one of the most positive aspects of LinkedIn and finding employment. That’s why having 20 or so good ones just give an employer more good reason to qualify and call a candidate. There won’t be any negative recommendations on LinkedIn. That doesn’t happen on a resume.

  • WWD

If I’m trying to find a job and I have references who will say good things about me, wouldn’t I want a potential employer to contact them? I know there is a risk someone with ulterior motives will contact them, but I think that risk is small. I don’t see the problem.

  • MM

Nothing is private these days. Companies always could check references anyway. All LinkedIn does is make this more transparent and easier for companies to check on references.

I also encourage my clients to check what people are saying about them. There are services out there to do so.

  • RS

Hi Joshua, I thought I’d weigh in on your topic.

The best analogy for those people who think they can stem the tide on employer reference is it’s like trying to herd cats. Case in point:

In the days before the internet, people probably thought that there was very little access to previous employers and background information but that is absolutely not the case. Recruiters and staffing groups “had their ways” of getting about any kind of information about a candidate they wanted. I know I was a recruiter and also managed a few different staffing groups. The only difference with the internet and sites like Linked In is that getting background information is cheaper and faster that it used to be. No one should assume that a motivated hiring manager or recruiter only has Linked In at their disposal to find out anything they want about you. Even if there is enough pressure to make Linked In change a few things that will limit access, that might slow them (hiring people) down but it won’t stop them.

I agree with you. I think you have to assume that what will be reflected will be positive and to also give some credit to the people seeking to know more about you. I know I would hear a few negative things about candidates but I never took it on face value. I weighted it against all sorts of factors because when it came right down to it, I trusted my own opinion the most about another person. I believe others out there are the same way.

I would urge people who are using their time and energy on trying to get Linked In to modify the functionality of their site on this issue, to spend that it on self-improvement. The best reference in the world are results.
Good topic. d

  • DTM

I like the ease and efficiency LI recommendations afford to those who are checking me out as a career management professional. In my practice, I am routinely asked for references by employers who hire me to help with outplacement/career transition projects, or by individuals interested in hiring someone to help them with career transition, resume writing, job search, interviewing, etc.

I simply direct them to my LI url or copy / paste recommendations from LI into an email IF by chance they are not familiar with LinkedIn. I am always surprised by how many people (professionals / executives) have heard of LinkedIn though do not have their own profile established on that site.

From my perspective, LI simply made my private practice more efficient in serving others. In a sea of competition, providing a LI url on one’s resume (website/branded materials/business cards) is smart thinking ~~ anything a job seeker / private practitioner can do to make the hiring manager’s life easier, less complicated, more efficient is worthy of consideration IMO. My 2cents! 🙂

Look forward to your program today.

  • BS

This is the world we are living in. It is only one way that employers have to check references without our knowledge. LinkedIn just makes it easier to present the information you want an employer to see quickly and easily… letting them know that you have nothing to hide. There are connections that you both may have that would potentially overpower any negative, poor, recommendation that one previous employer may have.

I do not think it is worth the petition.

  • TA

What’s the purpose of a reference? Isn’t it so an employer can check/verify/inquire about your skills, experiences and/or character?

I’m unsure what the person is upset about as it pertains to that. I do sense a growing unrest with LinkedIn because so much personal information is online — counter to privacy concerns and anti-identity theft practices.

  • AT

If someone is saying that LinkedIn makes it easier for an employer to check your references they definitely are having problem with themselves, and/or, are afraid of what an employer might say.

I have had nothing but more calls and emails from employers who have checked me out on linkedin when I was not enough looking for new job.

This person is definitely taking this to far and only has problem issues with him or herself.

  • FB

If you don’t want to be looked at, don’t get on LinkedIn.

  • BR

The easier we make it for employers to make hiring decisions the better. We should not post references who won’t vouch for us. I don’t understand the reason for concern.

  • DC

Interesting question! I don’t think it has anything to do with LinkedIn; it has more to do with the job seeker. Employers are busy and if they can find a fast, efficient way to check references via LinkedIn, great! It’s the Job seeker’s responsibility to forewarn any references.

My guess is the person who sent you the tweet didn’t like what a reference had to say?

LinkedIn is all about connections. No, I don’t think this Is worthy of an appeal, but may be an opportunity for job seeker education.

Looking forward to your webinar in just a little while.

  • LY

It is part of being on LinkedIn. It is a professional networking site. Also, you control what information you put in the profile. You do not have to list your work experience or educational background if you do not want to.

I prefer to look at LinkedIn as another way to add credibility to my resumé and my interview with an employer.

  • MH

In small industries, everyone already knows each other and “unofficial” reference checking is frequent. I don’t think LinkedIn has radically changed matters. Job search eventually stops being confidential when you get to the reference checking phase much of the time anyway. A candidate always has the opportunity to firmly and politely tell their prospective employers that they are in a confidential search. Just my 2 cents.

  • HK

While employers should talk to you first before the reference, many won’t. They want to know more about you. Background checks are done often for many reasons — good and bad. Unless you are concerned that the employer will contact your current employer, connecting with a previous employer shouldn’t be a worry. In Corporate America, employers are limited as to what they can say by law, so unless the individual connects with someone who will risk sharing too much I don’t see the concern.

Maybe I’m wrong, but from my experience all my previous employers couldn’t share anything other than dates of employment and whether I’d be rehired or not.

Thanks Josh. See you on the webinar very soon.

  • LH

Thanks for asking, Joshua.

I feel that it’s public domain and that’s what it’s there for. We have to become more savvy in career management strategies, which isn’t a bad thing.

  • SC

I kind of thought that was (part of) the idea. One stop shopping, as it were.


Signing up for any public or semi-private website allows others to view. IMHO- people can read all they want about me on LinkedIn or Facebook. If I worry about what I post, I shouldn’t post it. If I worry about what others might say, delete your presence. Even the best restaurants get some bad reviews, to use an analogy.


Your tweet person should delete their account with Linkedin if they are upset. Not an issue.

  • VB

I like the fact LINKEDIN makes it easy to get to my references. Saving a potential employer a little hassle can only help me. At least that’s my thinking. Hope this helps.

  • JLK

This sorta begs the question, why would you have references on LinkedIn if you didn’t want them used.

I appreciate that the primary purpose of LI is professional networking – but the main play these days is to make potential employers aware of who and what you are

just my thoughts

  • DM

This is a bit much.

  • TN

I have no problem with LinkedIn making it easier to check references. I would not support a petition to have LinkedIn change this feature.

That said, some of the people I coach have their lives made more difficult because they have skill sets and/or backgrounds that do not help them in job hunting. I subscribe to the theory that you must create sufficient favorable impressions through contributions online to dominate the first page of search results in someone’s name. To overcome the possibility that negatives will appear, job seekers may need more coaching on how to create that good impression. You have credibility. Maybe you could address different techniques once per month.

  • AG

Anyone who takes the time to go on Linkedin is usually positive.

  • PM