The Truth about Job References

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When applying for a job, it's not just your resume and interview that matter. Who you select to be your reference can make a huge difference. For me, picking the right reference has always been a challenge. There was a time, years ago, when I was applying for a job with a company that also employed a friend of the family. Before I submitted my application, I asked the friend if they would be willing to put in a good word for me. Because of our family connection, I didn't think that my request was inappropriate. She said that she would be happy to help. Thinking that everything would be fine, I went ahead and applied for the job. During the interview, I gave her name as a reference. I was offered the job on the spot and went home feeling victorious. Unfortunately, my victory was short-lived. A few hours later, I received a phone call from the hiring manager saying that he checked with my reference and because of that, he was forced to take back the job offer. At first, I thought he had to be kidding, but soon I realized that my friend wasn't as happy to help as she had claimed and in fact, didn't like me at all. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least, and one that can be prevented by making sure that your references are rock solid.

So, how can you make sure that the references you provide a new employer are going to be effective? Well, here are a few truths about job references that can make the task a little easier:

While your previous employers have some restrictions about what they are able to say, they can and will give you a bad reference if warranted. Many Human Resource offices have policies in place that prevent them from giving bad references, however, these rules can be bent. Not only that, there are still ways to get the point across without violating any rules. For example, simply saying "Please check this person's references very carefully" or "Let me pull the legal file to be sure what I'm allowed to say" is enough to make a prospective employer think twice.

Only provide references when specifically asked. You should treat your references like gold. Don't give away their contact information without good reason. Most of us send out copies of our resumes to companies we never hear from again, so there is no need to hand over this sensitive information. Instead, wait until the interview to provide them, that way, you'll have more control over who contacts them and why.

Stay in touch with your references. If you've had a professor, a mentor or a boss who worked closely with you, keep in touch with them. This doesn't mean that you have to talk to them every day, but you should stay in contact and update them with information about your career and accomplishments. After all, you want them to have all of the relevant info about what you're doing now, rather than only being able to speak about the past. In addition, staying in contact helps build the friendship, making it more likely that they will have positive things to say about you.

Always ask before using someone as a reference. This one is huge. Don't assume that someone will give you a good reference. In fact, it's not enough to simply ask them in casual conversation, you have to take things a step farther and ask what sort of reference they would give you. In my case, even though I asked, I made the mistake of asking while we were in the company of other family members. Without realizing it, I put her on the spot and she agreed only because saying no would have been rude. Instead, I should have pulled her aside and mentioned why I was looking for the job and talked about my qualifications. Then, I should have asked her if there was anything she could do to help me get the job and if I could use her for a reference.

When in doubt, do a test run. This may sound silly, but if you aren't sure what your references will say about you, why not do a test run? This is exactly what it sounds like. Enlist a friend's help, pretend to be a prospective employer and ask for a reference. It might seem sneaky, but it will give you a better idea of what an employer will learn about you.

Keep in mind that just because you get the job, it doesn't mean that you're done. Employers can, and often do, use the 90-day probation period to conduct more intensive background checks. During that time, if your work abilities or your references don't make you stand out, your new boss can fire you without having to give an explanation.

Are you frequently asked to provide references? How do you handle them? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Mercury thanks for your comment. Companies will not always ask for references until they are ready to set you up for an interview or they will ask for them at the interview. It is always best to be prepared with a list of references that you can pass on. But make sure that you have asked to use them as a reference and then let them know about the position so that they can be prepared to answer questions about you. Don't just assume that someone will be a reference. Nothing worse than getting blindsided with a phone call for a reference when you know nothing about it. It has happened to me where someone used me as a reference without my permission. I did not give a good report. So make sure that you ask permission first and then keep your references abreast of what is happening.

  • Mercury E.
    Mercury E.

    I guess you right about that but for some reason, the position to which your applying for some times doesnt require any references.

  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Wow! This is really turning into a great discussion!@Laura - Thanks for the great advice. Asking for the job is never a bad thing.@Brad - Great point! Before leaving a job, you should try to get contact information in order to stay in touch with co-workers.@Douglas - For a self-employed person, a client reference is the best thing you can give.@Alice - Don't give up. When you've been out of touch with past co-worker, it can be hard to reconnect and not seem creepy or like a stalker. Maybe you could look for them and add them on a social networking site like Facebook. That way, you can get in touch without having to be extremely pushy or friendly. Then, you can ask for a reference.
  • Laura M
    Laura M
    It has never been a negative closing on the applicants part if at the point they are asked if there are any other questions they have for the perspective employer to ask one last question - "May I have the position?" Especially true if you DO WANT the job you have applied and interviewed in person for.  They may not be able to directly answer yes or no in that minute...but you will have clarified your interest is likely to continue only as much as they already know how to keep you following up till authority is received to make the offer.  Worst they can say is No.
  • steve D
    steve D
    Yes I am required in health field to give references. I wait until I feel as if the job is in bag before giving them
  • Brad F
    Brad F
    Be sure to get contact info from your work references before layoffs come or the company closes. Make sure you have name, phone#, email and position/title.When filling out online applications that require references before submitting:Name - Available During InterviewPhone - (use yours)email - (use yours)you can use the same info for each reference required.
  • Michele D
    Michele D
    Hi, very good advice. I would like to know if one should list their full address & phone number on the resume... I have always debated about this. Thanks in advance for the reply.
  • Evelyn U
    Evelyn U
     Good  Talk, I will adhere to this
  • Robert C
    Robert C
    Excellent advice
  • Joseph A
    Joseph A
    In my experience it's rare that "work friends" turn into real friends, but those who do are valuable to you. First and foremost, of course, it is very important to have real friends in this life.  But also, those real friends are the people you'll have stayed in touch with because you want to, not just to cultivate as references, and they are the people you can count on speak well of you.
  • Renee C
    Renee C
    Very good advice on references.
  • Bonnie H
    Bonnie H
    What if there's bad blood? I had to take a long-term employer to the Labor Board...hearings, etc.,..& this firm/man was one of my 'best friends'! I EARNED my references and they are the ones who did such a horrible thing to me...but I'M PAYING FOR IT as they're 'attorneys'. NO ONE in Government Helps or is accountable!
  • Lyle H
    Lyle H
    I have to agree with the forgoing. Staying in touch with former supervisors that you wish to use as a reference can be a little difficult especially if you don't really have any thing in common. Having said that, it's likely a good idea to call them up and just say hello. To me that shows character.  
  • Taaliba K
    Taaliba K
    Thank you for all helpful information.
  • Gwendolyn R
    Gwendolyn R
    Quite helpful and thought provoking. thank you.
  • Douglas B
    Douglas B
    I have been selfemployeed 30 plus years. I only have customers to use for references is this going to be ok.
  • Juana C
    Juana C
    Great advice
  • Alice T
    Alice T
    Dear Dr. Melissa Kennedy, Thank you for taking the time to post you blog regarding ‘References.’  I have been unemployed as of 12/24/2011, exactly one year.  And as you can imagine, my meager unemployment Federal Extended benefits are due to expire (as for everyone) on January 2, 2013.  I was totally frustrated and know that I am not working due to my age (54), my gender (Female), my race (light skin complexion African American) and my appearance (professional and neat but no real “WOW” factor).  In fact, I often express to my Mother, my ally during my extensive period of unemployment, that “at least if I was fat and or noticeably unattractive, maybe I would have a better chance at obtaining and or maintaining employment.”  Middle  of the road (average) women who are mature in their actions and thoughts, educated and professional are a hindrance to women who are secure (complacent) in their work position and environment,  just show up to do what is expected of them and don’t have to be impressive.  As you implied in your blog, after a year of unemployment and being obligated to spend the majority of my day time job searching and not volunteering, lack solid and reliable references.  But in addition, the statement you made regarding the 90 day probationary period is so true. My experience has been not once but several times, that once you are on your new job, being cordial and polite with your new boss and fellow co-workers,  but spending more time concentrating on learning your new job than being the office socialite, any employee who you didn’t act excited enough to talk to  and who no longer wants to work as hard as you are expected to work as a new employee can be annoyed enough to complain about your work ethic (“all she does is sit at her desk and work’) which would make your new boss question if you were a “good match” for the department or company.  Also, as far as references - have you ever tried to really build a relationship with a previous co-worker now that you are no longer working as there co-worker?  And if you were only a work acquaintance while the two of you were employed together and no matter how well you got along on the job, if you didn’t have their home phone number, mobile number or address before you were fired, laid –off or resigned, I think it would be considered “stalking” and a bigger nuisance for you to try to obtain that information.  I have asked an HR Manager after being employed two years with a company their last name and believe it or not, she refused to tell me that information.  But imagine what they would say if you insisted on kept trying to be there friend as an ex co-worker?  It would only add insult to injury as to what they would say as your reference.  To me, to try to build a relationship with a previous employer, especially a Manager level employee, seems more pathetic and a problem than any company (past or future) would appreciate.  And of course what was a natural occurrence in terms of sharing your life when you worked together is now a nuisance and intrusive to their own workload if the only number you have is their work phone number, while you are a job seeker.  Furthermore, lunching, happy hours or invites over to your home (only if you had that type of friendship before your work relationship ended), seems like you are now defrauding America and wasting your unemployment benefits socializing or “networking “but  not on job search expenses.   And finally, in today’s work climate, with relatively few job advancement opportunities, it tends to make it difficult for anyone to promote another person above and beyond themselves or their own children.  In fact, I am confident that many of my references who know what I have been up too in terms of job searching, caring for my elder Mother, exercise, church, family and writing a collection of short stories and poetry; have ‘stabbed me in my back’ as well and have taken  a leave of absence using their vacation pay to try out the job I may have been offered  because it is an employer’s natural  instinct to first hire or want someone that is currently employed, has reliable and invested references and that it seems that everyone else is still interested in hiring or keeping them on their payroll.  This malady often occurs when unemployed job seekers are applying for temporary to hire positions.  And what is worst about job searching and presenting references is when an employer is seeking a reference they want to speak to Managers.  There is no interest in speaking to your previous co-worker, your relatives, your parents and their friends, especially when you work for all of them for free and especially not your friends who know your skills and abilities through your civic, church and community organizations, but your previous Manager or any other Manager who you associated with and who has an obligation to the other Managers to definitely discuss you and ask for feedback regarding your reference.  And feedback ...
  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Thanks for the great comments!@Rick - Absolutely! Plus, if you post a copy of your resume online, you don't want your references' contact information to be available to everyone. It can cause hard feelings and ruin friendships.@Kathleen - I always recommend talking to your references before you use them. It's too important to leave to chance so if you make sure that they are willing to say nice things about you, you'll save yourself some heartache and embarrassment if your assumptions were wrong.
  • Rick (James) B
    Rick (James) B
    I read one of the statements about not giving out Reference Informations too quickly.  This is sound advice on many levels.  You do want to keep your References Information as Private as possible, knowing who has that information.  In some case, though Very Rare, there could be the concern of Personal Privacy, Work Ethics and Business Practices.  There is the reality where some Small Business Owners find themselves rapidly growing and the Owner IS the Human Resources Manager.  This Owner may hire a 'Recruiting Firm' charged with 'getting results' or filling multiple positions.  In the case of an 'overzealous' Recruiter, they could try to cut corners to save time and quietly collect references information, turning that information into their own Recruit List.  Though this goes against many rules of Recruitment and Business Ethics, it could cause some strain and misunderstanding; both personally and professionally and end up losing what could have been your best reference.
  • Rick (James) B
    Rick (James) B
    While helping others build their Resumé, I have suggested using the phrase, 'References Available Upon Request' at the Bottom of the page and have that list with you at the interview. It is in your best interest to have that list with you in the event they do ask. The Interviewer may ask just to see if you are Willing and Prepared to provide them. If the Interviewer does take them and add then to your package, jot down the names of the people you used and give that person a 'Courtesy Call' or email to let them know you used their name and where ~ No one likes to be put on the spot and expected to say Good Things about you. If the person you use is caught off guard, it may give the Caller the impression they don't know you very well or there is something unflattering to hide.
  • Kathleen Simpson
    Kathleen Simpson
    Excellent information.  Although I have always checked with my references first I agree that if they are past employers or colleagues it is important to keep in touch with them.
  • marianne n
    marianne n
    good to know
  • Melissa K
    Melissa K
    @Armelle, it's a shame when a previous employer refuses to give a reference. Perhaps you could send a request in writing? Unfortunately, politics and the "favorites" game happen a lot at non-profits (although they happen almost anywhere).
  • Armelle C
    Armelle C
    A close friend who owns a mid-size company in the DC suburbs called a former employer just to get an idea of what was or was not being said about my work ethics. My former COO never returned her telephone call.  I worked for a non-profit organization (a Girl Scout council in the south) for a total of three years.  Unfortunately, this particular group of women played the "favorites" game and did not uphold the creed of the Girl Scout philosophy and organization.  The entire experience has been a great disappointment.  However, I do wish them well and hope that there will come a time when all of their employees are treated equally and fairly.    

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