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You're this close to landing your dream job. You're uber-qualified, have gone through several rounds of terrific interviews, and just seemed to gel with the hiring managers. For some reason though, they pass you over at the last minute. Why? It could be a bad reference from a former employer.
Too often, job-seekers underestimate the importance of good references. "No matter what the nature of the job or pay scale, people should take their references very seriously," says Heidi M. Allison, managing director of jobreferences.com. "They can make or break a hiring decision."
Ann Wooley, Director of Operations at Alliance Resources Inc. a Human Resources consulting firm in Portage, Michigan, agrees. "Unless we have references from previous employers or supervisors, that candidate does not move on in the process. We need someone to validate what your accomplishments are."
Allison believes that most job-seekers labor under many of the same (unfounded) myths about references -- falsehoods that can ruin your prospects at an otherwise well-deserved job. Read on to dispel these myths and learn what you can do to optimize your references.Myth No. 1
If I had any issues with my former boss, I can simply leave him off my reference list and nobody will ever know.
Reality: According to Allison, "Many companies conduct what is know as a "social security check" to determine where you have worked in the past and then call the human resources department or office administrator at each employer for a reference. This practice is in place to see if a prospective employee has left any significant places of employment off of a resume -- another bad move that should be avoided at all costs."
What You Can Do: Serge Prengle, a career coach in New York City, says, "If there is a reasonable chance you could get found out, it makes sense to be up-front with the person you are interviewing with. If it is verifiable, you put yourself in a worse position by not telling them about it. Tell your side of the story."
If you had problems with one person, try to provide another reference who can then back up your side of the story. "Chances are an individual hasn't worked for just one person within that organization," says Wooley.
Potential employers are willing to understand about a single conflict in your past, but they aren't naive. "If a candidate continually tells you that they can't provide you with former references because they didn't get along with them, that's a red flag," Wooley warns.
It is also possible to do some damage control on the other end. Dr. Shirley Schaye, a psychoanalyst in New York City, suggests calling your former employer to plead your case, but not until you've done some homework: "Read your evaluation very carefully and read between the lines. Discuss it with a friend and brainstorm ways that you have improved. When you speak to your former employer, accept responsibility for the things they have a problem with because you are going to want to show some self-reflection, that you have really thought about these problems and have improved. Finally, show your former employer concrete evidence of what you have done to improve."
Your hope in doing this is to neutralize the problem, and ideally, turn a bad reference around by showing growth and improvement. Tread carefully though. Many former employers may consider your appeal to be too little, too late. Only contact a potentially bad reference if there is no way around listing them on your current application.
Companies are not allowed to say anything negative about a former employee. In fact, most of them direct reference checks to their human resources departments, and these people won't say anything bad about me.
Reality: This is technically true. However, half of Allison's clients do receive a bad reference, despite the strict policies in place, so it is important to be prepared. "Companies are advised not to give negative feedback. HR will verify dates of employment, position, eligibility for rehire, and with a signed release, salary information," says Wooley, "But you have to expect that sometimes individuals will provide more information. Rehire eligibility will also tell you a lot."
Additionally, "reference checkers often evaluate how something is said. In other words, they listen to tone of voice and note the HR staffer's willingness to respond to their questions -- both critical factors, says Allison.
What You Can Do: Ideally, you should build a good relationship with your HR representative, but at the very least, be respectful of this person when you do interact with him or her. Wooley says, "HR works within all levels of an organization -- they're the people people. If an employee wants to try to build a relationship with the HR person, it's possible. And it's important to just be respectful of the HR person when they do meet with them. Make sure you pay attention during orientation procedures and read your employee handbook." If you are only going to make a limited impact on a person, you have to make sure that you're putting your best face forward.Myth No. 3
I sued my former company and now they are not allowed to say anything.
Reality: "They may not be able to say anything definitive, but do not put it past them to carefully take a shot at you," says Allison, "There have been plenty of instances where a former boss or an HR staffer has said, 'Hold on a minute while I get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say about Mr. Smith.' Many employers may be uncomfortable hiring someone who has a legal history, dashing your job prospects."
What You Can Do: "Is this always a negative? No. If it is a legitimate situation, we don't always jump to a negative conclusion. The immediate thought I have is not always negative," says Wooley.
Just be sure to be prepared with an explanation if the subject comes up. While a lawsuit in your past doesn't seem to be a deal-breaker, the topic is also unlikely to be as off-limits as you might hope.
I should have my references listed on my resume and distribute them together.
Reality: "Your references should be treated with kid gloves," says Allison, "Only provide them when asked. The last thing you want is a number of companies that may or may not have a real interest in hiring you bothering your references. What's more, you want to meet with a prospective employer first to leave a favorable impression before any reference checks take place. If you suspect a less-than-favorable reference from someone, you can use the interview to address the situation proactively, from your perspective."
What You Can Do: Don't hand your reference information out like candy, but be careful to provide it whenever you are asked for it. Always come prepared with your references when interviewing, so you don't look unprofessional or unprepared. Wooley says, "On your resume you should say, 'References available upon request.' If you are filling out an application, you should not leave the references section blank. Make sure to complete it even if you already provided them separately. The application is a legal document that carries much more weight than your resume might."Myth No. 5
There is really no need to stay in touch with my references.
Reality: As the saying goes -- out of sight, out of mind. References who haven't heard from you in years are much less likely to sing your praises than those who have been kept abreast of your accomplishments.
What You Can Do: You should be sure to contact your references before a potential employer contacts them. "If a reference is surprised to hear from me, that raises another red flag in my mind," says Wooley.
"Ideally, you should stay in touch with references even when you are not looking for a job. People who have done that will have no trouble," says Prengle. "But if you have not thought about it and are now changing jobs, it's better to reconnect at that point, rather than just let it slide."
All of our experts agree that a direct approach is the best. Schaye says, "You are going to be asking them the question anyway so be direct. Tell them you know you haven't been in touch, but are asking for their help. Honesty is the best policy. If you are going to pretend to be friends, this person is going to feel duped and not want to help you."
Finally, when the process is over, follow simple etiquette guidelines! A quick but personal thank you goes a long way. Allison says, "Acknowledge your references with a personal thank-you letter or e-mail; offer to take a former boss to lunch or dinner; or send them a thoughtful gift." After all, you will most likely need this person again in the future!