The Seven Deadly Myths of Job References
Here's how to make sure past employers -- the ones you didn't like -- don't undermine your job search.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

Dear Annie:
Please settle an argument. Two years ago, I left a big company to take a job with a startup, and it turned out to be a disaster. The management was chaotic, there were no systems in place, and everybody was into poisonous office politics. After about nine months, I couldn't take it anymore and quit, on very bad terms with my boss. I went back to my old employer, but now my whole division here is being outsourced, and I'm job hunting again. Several interviewers have asked me for references from my last three jobs. I know I can get good recommendations from my current employer, but not from the Startup from Hell. I'd like to just leave that whole experience off my resume (and my list of references) and pretend I never worked there. But my wife tells me I'd be making a mistake, because prospective employers will find out anyway, and then I'll just look like a liar. Is she right?
-- Honest Abe

Dear Abe:
Absolutely. "This notion so many people have, that you can just neglect to mention a job that didn't work out, or a boss who disliked you, is one of what I call the seven deadly myths of job references," says Heidi Allison-Shane, managing director of Jobreferences.com, a reference-checking service based in Rochester Hills, Mich. "The fact is that prospective employers can, and do, get references without your giving them, or even knowing who is being contacted." Companies do something called a Social Security check, which will reveal everyplace you've ever worked, so leaving a bad experience off your resume will just make them wonder what you're trying to hide.

What should you do instead? "The best defense is a good offense," says Allison-Shane. "First, try to work it out." If you possibly can, swallow your pride and take your old boss out to lunch. Tell him or her that you would like to bury the hatchet, and say that you want to be able to give his or her name as a reference. If that doesn't go well, or if you just can't bring yourself to do it, then you'll have to do some explaining in job interviews. "It isn't that unusual to have philosophical differences, or a personality clash, with a former boss," Allison-Shane notes. "But you need to warn hiring managers that they probably won't get a glowing recommendation from this person, so at least they're prepared. A negative surprise can really hurt you."

Omitting a bad experience from your resume is just one of the seven deadly job reference myths that can cost you a job offer. Here is Allison-Shane's list of the six others:

  • Myth #1: Companies' lawyers won't allow them to say anything critical of a former employee.

    Fact: While many employers do have formal policies dictating that only title, dates of employment, and eligibility for rehire can be discussed, "people do break the rules every day," notes Allison-Shane. About half of the employees she does reference checks on for her clients get badmouthed by their employers, despite their mum's-the-word policies.

  • Myth #2: Most companies direct reference calls to the HR department, and those people won't say anything bad.

    Fact: Alas, HR doesn't have to say anything overtly critical about you to get their point across. Even a less-than-enthusiastic tone of voice can work against you. Also, HR people routinely disclose whether ex-employees are eligible for rehire. If they mention that you're not eligible, that will speak volumes to a prospective employer.

  • Myth #3: It's best to list references on your resume, so they get distributed to every potential employer.

    Fact: "Your references should be treated with kid gloves. Provide them only when asked," says Allison-Shane. "The last thing you want is for your references to be deluged with calls from too many companies, who may or may not have a real interest in hiring you."

  • Myth #4: Once you're hired, references don't matter anymore.

    Fact: "Many employment agreements and contracts stipulate that you're being hired with a 90-day probation period. During that time, not only are they evaluating your performance, they may also be checking your background and references," Allison-Shane says. "If the results aren't as good as they expected, they have the legal right to fire you."

  • Myth #5:I f you sued your former employer they can't say anything negative about you.

    Fact: Ha! While most employee-employer disputes are either settled in arbitration processes or in out-of-court settlements in a manner that prohibits both parties from discussing them, that doesn't mean your former employer can't find ways to respect the letter of that agreement while violating the spirit of it. "Do not put it past them to find a way to take a shot at you," says Allison-Shane. For example, an HR person might tell someone calling for a reference, "Hold on while I call our legal department and find out what we're allowed to say about Mr. Jones." Ouch. "Most employers are uncomfortable with hiring anyone who's had a legal battle with a former employer," notes Allison-Shane. "So that's a real red flag."

  • Myth #6: Once you have a job, there's no need to stay in touch with your references.

    Fact: Wrong! "Call them periodically to keep them updated on how you're doing. Make sure you thank them for their time, and acknowledge their help by treating them to lunch, dinner, or a thoughtful gift," says Allison-Shane. "Take good care of your references. They are valuable assets you'll need throughout your working life."

    Want more tips on making sure your references are lifelong allies? Check out Allison-Shane's free online seminar at www.allisontaylor.com.

    -------------------------------------------------------

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    Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

    Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

    Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

    Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.