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How To Handle Your References

By Joe Hodowanes

Let's be frank. Good, solid references are extremely hard to obtain. Who knows how many ex-bosses lie about a former employee rather than risk a lawsuit? Who knows how many opportunities are lost because of a careless or negative word that ends your candidacy without your ever knowing just what happened? Who knows how many employers and job seekers find the reference process equally frustrating?

By now, some of you may be thinking ... hold on! My company only gives out name, rank and serial number. Or you may be thinking that reference checking is an integral requirement in the hiring process, necessary to establish due diligence before extending an offer of employment. Or maybe you're thinking, don't executive recruiters use reference checking as one way to verify that job candidates can actually do what they say they can do before the recruiters present them to the company conducting a search? All of that is true. However, there is nothing sadder to job seekers than to go through a long job search, only to be torpedoed by their references! To keep that from happening to you, here are a few suggestions.

  • Obtain a reference statement from your ex-company - As soon as possible, strive to get an "official agreement" with your ex-company about why you left. You need to know who is going to handle all reference check calls and what is going to be said. You don't want anyone handling your calls that may have residual tension or ill feelings towards you. As you go through a career transition, you will need a fair, balanced evaluation. Remember, no matter what the circumstances of your departure, your former company probably would like to see you re-employed quickly so it can minimize any unpleasant reverberations in the company or the industry. Therefore, it will tend to be supportive - with a little guidance from you.

  • Limit the number of references - A circulating myth out there says there is safety in numbers. But, when you provide 12, 15, or 20 references, you are giving up one very important item: CONTROL. If someone is giving you a negative or a neutral reference, your chances of tracking it down are slim. Unless specifically asked to provide more references, stay with six, three business and three personal. Clearly illustrate which ones are which. With business references, list titles and verify where they want to take incoming reference calls. Some business references prefer to take calls at home instead of work. For personal references, if you have known them for a long period of time, stipulate how long you have known each individual. This will show an ability on your part to establish long-term lasting relationships.

  • Compile your list wisely - If any of your references seem lukewarm or a bit reluctant to speak on your behalf when you contact them, ask them if they would prefer not to be called so they can excuse themselves gracefully. It is better for you to purge them out now than to pay the price later.

  • Never give references until they are specifically asked for - When a prospective employer brings up references, have your list ready, neatly typed, including address and phone numbers. If your references have e-mail addresses, you may want to include them.

    But rather than just handing over your list, mention that you would like to ask your references for permission to use their names in this inquiry. Most potential employers will see this as nothing more than common courtesy, and it also gives you sufficient time to prep your references.

  • Make a two-way promise - You will keep your references abreast of strong possibilities, and in return they will keep you informed regarding any calls they receive. At this critical stage, they may have a sense of how positive your would-be employer is feeling about you. You can fully appreciate how valuable this information can be for your closing negotiations.

  • Don't underestimate the grapevine - The higher the position level, the more informal the reference checking process is likely to be. As the saying goes, it's a small world after all, especially at the top where many informal reference checks take place at conferences or at business/social gatherings. What do you think is being said about you?

  • Second generation references - When you select your reference list, be aware of a practice know as "back checking." This is a practice of asking the list of references that you furnished for additional names of employees who worked with or for you. "Back checking" to the second generation is used occasionally by executive recruiters and outsourcing/staff leasing firms when they are trying to identify blemish-free candidates before presenting them to the companies that hired them.

  • Consider what your co-workers would say about you - Given the increasing difficulty of locating former bosses, especially if you worked for a large company that has downsized periodically, reference checkers rely heavily on two sources: written performance appraisals and the evaluation of peers. The expanding influence of co-workers can be attributed to necessity and the growth of workplace teams.

  • Give closure - Give all of your references immediate thanks and closure when you finally take a new position. Maybe someday you can return the favor. After all, what goes around comes around!

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Guest columnist Joe Hodowanes MPA, SPHR is Career Strategy Advisor and President of J.M. Wanes & Associates, Tampa, FL 33688. - Email:

This article is reprinted with permission.

    Tuesday, March 27, 2007 © CPAmerica International    

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