Will your references sabotage your job hunt?

Don't take your recommendations for granted. If the people you list are anything but easy to reach, and highly enthusiastic, you could lose out on an offer.

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By Anne Fisher, contributor

Will your references make or break your job hunt?
1. A prospective employer who calls your references has pretty much already decided to hire you. It's mostly a formality by then: As long as your references don't say anything terrible, you can count on an offer.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I've been looking for a job for three months, putting in eight-hour days of contacting people I used to work with, attending industry events, "meeting" people and joining groups on social networking sites, and putting out every other kind of feeler I can think of. I've had a couple of rounds of interviews, but each time, what looked very close to being a solid offer suddenly turned cold.

I've noticed that, both times this happened, it was after the interviewer said he intended to call the people I had given as references. It could be a coincidence, of course, but then again, I'm starting to wonder what my references (two former bosses and a former client who all liked my work, or so I thought) have been saying about me. Your thoughts, please? -Wondering in Winnetka

Dear W.W.: You're right to wonder. Yes, it could be sheer coincidence that both your hot prospects turned chilly after references came into the picture -- and, in this job market, with so many candidates for every job opening, it's entirely possible that those two employers simply found somebody else they regarded as a better fit.

On the other hand, consider for a moment the responses of hiring managers asked to recall the most surprising reference check they'd done lately. Here's a sampling, from Silicon Valley staffing firm The Creative Group, which conducted the survey:

  • "Someone used her mother as a reference. Needless to say, she had not worked anywhere with her mother."
  • "We learned that the woman we were interviewing liked to go barefoot all day."
  • "We talked to someone who said that the applicant didn't like the industry in which he was trying to get a job."
  • "The reference said the person fell asleep during work hours."
  • "A professor recommended someone who was really smart, but mentioned that he was never seen wearing any footwear besides flip-flops."
  • "The reference went on and on about the candidate's favorite music, bars, social activities, etc."
  • "The fellow I called just started laughing. He said he could not believe he was a reference for this candidate."

Yikes. No doubt the job applicants under discussion would be mortified to hear these comments. But even far less damaging remarks can undermine your job hunt.

"Even a subtle lack of enthusiasm can work against you," notes Megan Slabinski, The Creative Group's executive director.

Let's try to figure out where your relationships with references may be going awry. A few questions for you:

  • Did you let them know beforehand that you would be giving out their names and contact information and listing them as references?
  • Have you explained to them what kind of job you're looking for, and what you'd appreciate their emphasizing when employers call?
  • Have they got an up-to-date copy of your resume?
  • Have you thanked them for being willing to put in a positive word for you, even if no one has called them?
  • Have you done them any good turns lately (or ever)?

If you answer "yes" to all of the above, that's a good start. Next consider: Are your references still in the jobs you think they're in?

"Be sure to stay in close contact with references," says Heidi Allison, CEO of Allison & Taylor, a firm that conducts reference checks for job seekers who want to verify what's being said about them. "If the person is no longer there to respond to inquiries, a reference checker may be shuffled around in the company and end up talking to someone who won't cast you in such a positive light."

If everyone's contact information checks out, get in touch with the HR department at your past employers to make sure their records match what you've put on your resume, advises Allison. Sometimes, companies get the facts wrong for staffers' dates of employment, title and salary, she says.

"You may even have been dropped from HR's records entirely," Allison says. "This happens more often than you might think, especially in the case of mergers, where not all records make the transfer into the new system. It's also frequently the case with the self-employed, since many companies do not hold records for independent contractors or consultants in their systems. It's not great when a prospective employer calls and is told there's no record of your ever having worked there."

Let's say you've double-checked all of the above and everything seems to be in order. Perhaps your references are, for whatever reason, just not singing your praises as effusively as they could be.

"If your reference is anything less than glowing, he or she is hurting your chances of landing the job you want," says Allison. "You need to know that person is doing everything possible to make a positive impression for you."

If you have any doubts, consider giving a different set of references.

"The best ones aren't necessarily the contacts with the most impressive job titles, but those who can speak the most persuasively about your merits," says Megan Slabinski. "You do need to actively manage your references, but employers often do their own digging to find out more about candidates. Any and all former co-workers and managers could be tapped as references. That's why it's wise to stay on good terms with everybody. You never want to burn bridges." Too true.

Readers, what do you say? Do you have good references? Has a reference ever surprised you by saying something negative? Ever said anything not-so-nice when asked for a reference? What's the worst reference you've heard or gotten? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page

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