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References Could Make or Break Your Job Search

Published February 23, 2013 7:24 PM by Glen McDaniel

Many individuals have decided that 2013 is the year they change jobs. Others are looking for employment because they have recently lost a job. According to polls conducted by Human Resource firm Allison &Taylor one of the 10 most popular New Year's resolution is job related.

There is lots of information out there related to preparing for a job, revamping your resume and putting your best food forward during an interview.

However, one often overlooked aspect of job hunting is the reference list. References are usually relegated to an afterthought and often not even provided until specifically requested by a prospective employer. After surveying over 1, 500 employers, Allison & Taylor concluded that references have gotten short shrift and are increasingly important in helping an applicant land that coveted job in this competitive economy.

References have become more valuable. While a resume will get you the interview, very often faced with two equally qualified candidates, the employer will rely on a reference to make a final decision.

There is nothing like an endorsement that a candidate has good work ethic, shows initiative or is a loss to their previous employer, to make him attractive to a prospective employer.

The format of references have changed. Traditionally a reference is a list of individuals who can vouch for you and a way to contact them.  Yet we all know not all work relationships are created equal. An effective reference list will identify those attributes each reference can attest to. Whenever possible, tie qualifications to the job being sought and indicate which references can vouch for each qualification with specific examples.

Such an approach will make a powerful and proactive statement on behalf of the job seeker.

Use peers and subordinates as references.  Many assume an employer will only check references with HR or former supervisors. That is a dangerous assumption. Employers are increasingly reaching out to peers and subordinates.

Why not beat your prospective employer to the punch and use as references those with whom you have had a successful work relationship? Associates like second-tier matrix managers or subordinates will provide a unique perspective about how you manage and work with others.  A boss will offer only one (biased?) perspective.

By the way, a prospective employer does not require permission to check any references. Be creative, pick references regardless of their title. Of course it is important to ask permission before you use someone as a reference. If you have not worked with them recently, call and bring them up to date on what you have been doing and give them an idea of the types of job you will be applying for. Verify their recollection of when and how you worked together, their current title, employer and contact information.

When a list of references is not specifically requested, boldly offer a detailed list at the end of your interview. Give the employer a list to work from before they develop a list of their own.

Monitor your social media sites.  When you apply for a job, comb your social media sites carefully. Do you want a prospective boss to see an off color joke, off handed comment or risque photo? Comments related to religion or politics may be offensive to some employers even if it does not directly impact your ability to do a certain job. Are they worth displaying?

Just be aware of what is on your social media sites, since employers are increasingly using those sites as "references" as well.

Be aware of legal negative references.  One of the most misunderstood areas of employment policy is that past employers will never divulge negative information about you and will refer all requests for a reference to HR. It is true that, generally, HR will only verify generic information such as title, and dates of employment.

But often, prospective employers can glean a lot from what is not said, or read through the lines. Consider the following responses to typical simple questions an employer might ask.

Is this employee eligible for rehire? Answer: Absolutely not!

How would you rate this employee's performance?  Answer: Let me look at Ms. Jones' legal file and see how much I can divulge-if anything.

Did this employee have any attendance issues? Answer: Big laugh (followed by silence).

These loaded and potentially detrimental responses are all legal, of course.

Remember, prospective employers are not restricted to the reference list a candidate provides. But the better the reference list provided, the less likely it is an employer will go "offlist" and stumble on a negative reference.

References have taken on new importance. If you are job seeking, it is time to revisit your approach to creating references using the guidelines suggested.



I have been in the lab career 30+ years.  About 8 years ago I applied for a job, was granted an interivew with HR and a second interview with the lead tech.  Out of the blue she asked me what a specific supervisor would say about me.  Neither the supervisor nor the job were listed on my resume.  Why would she ask and how would she know?  While I was in good standing with that supervisor, it certainly reinforced that things said off the record have a huge impact on success or failure.  To Miriam, it may not be what the former supervisor was saying, it could be what former employees are saying.  Never burn the bridges you might have to cross again.

Jane, Molecular Diagnostic - MLS March 11, 2013 7:46 AM
Dayton OH


I am sorry to hear you have been unsuccessful in getting a job. Do you have some specific information that your boss is bad mouthing you?

Employers are well aware of the legal risks for defamation and slander and rarely put themselves at such risk. Very often though prospective employers can read between the lines when they request a previous employer reference.

I have been voluntarily given way too much information sometimes when I have called for references. However most times it's the unsaid or the tone of voice that speaks volumes.

Even in cases where the official policy is to refer requests for employment history to HR, or to answer with the bare minimum information (worked here, dates employed, title), they will often say whether the person is eligible for rehire or not.

Silence, chuckles or snide remarks speak volumes even though technically the referee has not violated the law or organizational policy.

The bottom line is that it's difficult to find out if  an exboss is badmouthing you and it's even more difficult to do anything about it without hard evidence. Most prospective employers just dont want to get involved by alerting you  to the fact (or verifying) that you did not get the job because of a bad reference.

If it comes up in a job interview or followup that you received a bad reference from a previous employer be prepared to address it honestly and dispassionately. State your side of the disagreement. Offer additional professional  references who might dispute that one bad reference.

I would suggest you redouble your efforts to get a job, call on your friends and colleagues to help in your search, consider looking further afield if necessary.

I would also suggest dedicating several hours a day to your search. Use all available resources: company websites, job boards, Google, employment agencies, social media, cold calls to labs.  Post on your Twitter and Facebook pages that you are seeking a job.

Good luck in your search.

Glen McDaniel March 10, 2013 8:04 PM
Atlanta GA

My last boss and I did not get along. I resigned and have been looking for  a job for 5 months now with no luck. I think she might be giving me bad references. How can I check? is there anything I can do legally?

Miriam C. February 24, 2013 3:07 PM
Orlando FL

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