So, you've got everything in order - a first-class resume, dynamic cover
letter, well-honed interview skills, a hot new suit, and a great self-marketing
mindset. Forgotten anything? Well, maybe. How much confidence - no, ASSURITY
- do you have in your references?
While your resume and interview skills are absolutely critical to your
success, poor or merely lukewarm references can turn a near job offer
into a lost opportunity. Unfortunately, while employers take references
very seriously, job seekers often tend to treat their references too lightly.
Perhaps there was a time when a kind word from your Aunt Phyllis or one
of your golfing buddies was proof enough for a company to hire you. Times
have changed, though, and your references can sometimes make or break
They Can't Say That!
I know what some of you are saying: "Companies are only allowed
to provide dates and positions held" - in other words, they can't
give negative references because of "no comment" or "dates
and title only" policies. True, these policies exist, but that doesn't
mean that negative references are a thing of the past. Negative, suspicious,
or even simply indifferent references are given more than you would think.
A bad reference can be very subtle, from something as simple as a reference
who shows some hesitancy to be candid or who simply doesn't return a phone
call after three or four tries, all the way to something more obvious
such as "You may want to check her references carefully" or
worse yet "Good grief is he still in this industry?" The fact
is, you'd be surprised how many negative references are actually given.
Susan Oliver of References-etc.com,
a reference checking company for job hunters, claims that the percentage
of mediocre to bad references can even be as high as 65%.
So what do you do? Below is a list of the most important things to consider
when selecting and preparing to provide references, including a quick
checklist to make certain that you don't get any surprises.
Choose Your References Carefully
Who you choose to provide as a reference is very important, so your references
need to carry some weight. While the most important reference is usually
your current or most recent boss, you can also provide others that paint
a 360-degree portrait of your expertise. For example, if you're a Lead
Consultant, you might also consider providing the name of one of your
clients who can attest to your consulting skills from a different perspective.
The point is to include 3-5 reliable "business" references who
can attest to your performance on the job, and these might include bosses,
clients, vendors, peers, project team members, Board members, and even
subordinates. Avoid personal and "fluff" references - if your
list of references doesn't include current or recent bosses and other
legitimate references, an employer is going to recognize that the list
is "stacked" and will try to contact someone off the list anyway
to get the "real scoop".
Before you pass their name on to anybody, it's always a good idea to
talk to your references in some detail. It may seem awkward at first,
but try to ask them up front to clarify their perception of your major
accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses. Provide them with a copy of
your most current resume and make certain that they are up-to-date on
what you've done and any other noteworthy achievements that they may have
If you really want to find out the quality of your references - what
they are saying and how well they're saying it - you can hire a professional
reference checking firm to do this for you. The truth is, many companies
don't check references themselves - they hire professional reference checking
companies to do all of the reference checking for them and then provide
a report of the results. In similar fashion, there are also companies
like References-etc.com that
provide a similar service for job seekers. So, if you want to be certain,
or if you are consistently coming in second or third after a very promising
interview process and you suspect it may be your references, then you
owe it to yourself to find out what people are saying. Whether you talk
to them yourself (always a good idea) or hire a firm to do it (a valuable
alternative that offers third-person objectivity), it's a good idea to
know what's being said before you start handing out names.
How to Handle the Bad Reference
If you did have a bad boss, someone with whom you didn't exactly see
eye-to-eye, it's best to prepare for the possibility that he/she will
be contacted. What do you do? Well, if you are currently employed, one
option is to simply claim that you are looking confidentially and request
that your current employer not be contacted - confidential job searches
are very common these days and usually respected.
However, in other cases, you have a few choices:
1) Sit down with this bad boss and try to come to some agreement
as to what might be said should someone call for a reference. This is
often a very professional way to leave an organization and come to a professional
agreement (not always possible, but often worth a try).
2) Ask for clarification on areas of weakness, and take a course
to address them. If there's no denying the problem or complaint, at least
you can now counter with honesty that you are working on improving in
3) Your only other option is to do nothing, and hope that your
other references are so strong that they may outweigh whatever negative
reference your last employer provides.
Here's a quick checklist of things to consider when assembling and preparing
to hand out a list of references:
1) Choose your references carefully. Try for 3-5 business references
that include your current or most recent boss, and maybe some others who
can provide a good perspective on your abilities. Avoid personal and "fluff"
2) Double-check their contact information and current title, especially
with older references.
3) Call your current or previous HR department and ask their policy
on providing references - always good to know.
4) Get copies of your past performance evaluations - a great evaluation
is a handy thing to have in case your performance is questioned. If you
are a past-employee, some employers may require you to sign a release
in order to provide you with a copy.
5) With every reference, ask them their honest perception of your
abilities, achievements, strengths, and weaknesses.
6) If you fear that a reference might be negative, try to do some
damage control - discuss it directly or get training to improve in that
7) If you really want to be sure, hire a reference checking firm
to check for you. You get a report on their findings, advanced warning
of any problems, and piece of mind.
In the grander scheme of things, most talented HR professionals will
weight the odd so-so reference against the other positive references.
However, why put them in the position? Your best option is to eliminate
the possibility of a negative reference, make the HR person's decision
easier, and stand out from the crowd - resume, interview, and references
- as the all-around fantastic candidate that you are.
Ross Macpherson is the President of Career Quest, a Certified Professional
Resume Writer, and a Career Success Coach who has helped thousands of
motivated professionals advance their careers. To receive more valuable
career advice, sign up to join his monthly newsletter "Career Quest
Café" by visiting www.yourcareerquest.com.