Ottawa, 2023
Ottawa, 2023

Maybe Canadians enjoy gossiping or maybe they have trust issues—either way, reference checks are one of these puzzling aspects of life in North America that newcomers will quickly get familiar with.

Not that you will have the choice, anyway. You will need references at one point for a job, an apartment, a security clearance, and for your Canadian passport application. And sooner or later, friends will ask you to be a reference too—ultimate Canadian-ness achieved!

So, how does it work?

Welcome to the wonderful world of reference checks, written by someone who is currently a reference for half a dozen friends and former coworkers, and recently asked for two references again!

What’s a reference, exactly?

A reference is someone who knows you personally and can verify or provide some information about you.

At the very basic level, your reference should be able to confirm your name and various claims about your education, experience, and achievements, as well as answer questions about your character and abilities.

Most of the time, your reference should not be a spouse or a close relative. A strong work reference is a supervisor, and a rental reference should be a former landlord. For passports and security clearances, someone who knows you well enough, meets requirements and picks up the phone will do.

When do you need references?

Most people need references for a background check and most commonly when applying for a job, a rental, a passport or a security clearance.

When applying for a job

Employers use reference checks to assess your application. They tend to be requested toward the end of the hiring process.

References shouldn’t be listed on your resume, and the mention “references available upon request” is useless.

However, you should have a list of three references handy including:

· The name of your reference

· Their current job title

· How they relate to you (for instance, “former manager at WeRuleTheWorld”).

· Their contact information (preferably a professional email address and phone number)

Work references are often asked to confirm basic job details, such as your start and end dates. Other questions can include job performance, significant accomplishments, as well as strengths and weaknesses. A potential employer can also focus on relevant skills (“Was she a good team player?” “How would you rate her technical skills on ABC?”). “Would you hire this person again?” is another common one.

You should provide references who will speak highly of you. If your supervisor is the reason why you left the job in the first place, try to ask another manager or a coworker.

When applying for a rental

Not only the Canadian housing market is way overpriced but landlords also want references!

Landlords typically want to assess:

· If you’re reliable and responsible

· If you’re going to pay rent on time (or at all)

Employers and former landlords are the strongest references because they have insights into your work ethic and general behaviour.

When applying for a passport

You need two references to apply for a Canadian passport. They may be contacted to confirm your identity, and that’s it. Your references must be at least 18 and have known you for at least 2 years. They can’t be a family member.

For your first Canadian passport application, you will also need a guarantor on top of the two required references. Your guarantor must have known you for at least two years and hold a valid Canadian passport.

The requirements have changed because when I applied for my first passport, only people working in selected occupations—healthcare professionals, lawyers, etc.—were eligible guarantors. I guess at one point Canada realized that many people just don’t have a family doctor, probably the most requested guarantor!

When applying for a security clearance

This is a bit of an Ottawa thing because many people in the National Capital Region work with or for the federal government and must have a security clearance.

I had my first security clearance as a French teacher because I was accessing various work sites. Now, as a translator, I deal with classified information or sensitive data.

References must be provided as part of the background check—the higher the security clearance the most extensive the background check is.

Your references will typically be asked to confirm your identity. Other questions could include drug use, criminal record, debts, foreign trips, etc.

Reference etiquette

Always, always ask for permission before including someone as a reference. First, you will be sharing their information (email, phone number, etc.). Second, if you catch them off guard, they probably won’t have the chance to give the glowing reference you deserve.

I like to request a reference by email. This way, the person has the chance to think about it and decline gracefully if needed.

If your reference gives you the green light, offer them some background such as the name of the landlord or the position you applied for. It will help them prepare.

Don’t feel bad about asking for a reference! This is a pretty common request in Canada because everybody needs one sooner or later.

Choose your references carefully. If a potential reference appears hesitant, don’t list them—maybe they don’t have the time, or maybe they don’t think you’re a good match for the job. Either way, it could hurt your application.

Let your references know if you do get the job or the rental—after all, they played a role in your success!

Finally, don’t ask the same person for a reference too often. A couple of times a year sounds okay, half a dozen times in a row is too much.

What happens when you agree to be a reference?

Most of the time, nothing. Employers, landlords or the Government don’t always contact references, although the first two most likely will.

Reference checks are often conducted over the phone. For a job reference check, expect a 5-10 minutes phone call and typical interview-style questions. I was asked to answer a lengthy, time-consuming questionnaire once but the applicant told me to skip it, too many red flags about this potential employer.

Finally, let the applicant know you were contacted as a reference—it’s usually a good sign because it’s often the last stage of the hiring process!

Have you ever been a reference? Are you comfortable asking people for a reference? Are reference checks common where you live?

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