Don't Skimp on Your References
by Ross Macpherson, President, Career Quest

So, you've got everything in order - a first-class resume, dynamic cover letter, well-honed interview skills, a hot new suit, and a great self-marketing mindset. Forgotten anything? Well, maybe. How much confidence - no, ASSURITY - do you have in your references?

While your resume and interview skills are absolutely critical to your success, poor or merely lukewarm references can turn a near job offer into a lost opportunity. Unfortunately, while employers take references very seriously, job seekers often tend to treat their references too lightly. Perhaps there was a time when a kind word from your Aunt Phyllis or one of your golfing buddies was proof enough for a company to hire you. Times have changed, though, and your references can sometimes make or break the deal.

They Can't Say That!

I know what some of you are saying: "Companies are only allowed to provide dates and positions held" - in other words, they can't give negative references because of "no comment" or "dates and title only" policies. True, these policies exist, but that doesn't mean that negative references are a thing of the past. Negative, suspicious, or even simply indifferent references are given more than you would think. A bad reference can be very subtle, from something as simple as a reference who shows some hesitancy to be candid or who simply doesn't return a phone call after three or four tries, all the way to something more obvious such as "You may want to check her references carefully" or worse yet "Good grief is he still in this industry?" The fact is, you'd be surprised how many negative references are actually given. Susan Oliver of, a reference checking company for job hunters, claims that the percentage of mediocre to bad references can even be as high as 65%.

So what do you do? Below is a list of the most important things to consider when selecting and preparing to provide references, including a quick checklist to make certain that you don't get any surprises.

Choose Your References Carefully

Who you choose to provide as a reference is very important, so your references need to carry some weight. While the most important reference is usually your current or most recent boss, you can also provide others that paint a 360-degree portrait of your expertise. For example, if you're a Lead Consultant, you might also consider providing the name of one of your clients who can attest to your consulting skills from a different perspective. The point is to include 3-5 reliable "business" references who can attest to your performance on the job, and these might include bosses, clients, vendors, peers, project team members, Board members, and even subordinates. Avoid personal and "fluff" references - if your list of references doesn't include current or recent bosses and other legitimate references, an employer is going to recognize that the list is "stacked" and will try to contact someone off the list anyway to get the "real scoop".

Eliminate Surprises

Before you pass their name on to anybody, it's always a good idea to talk to your references in some detail. It may seem awkward at first, but try to ask them up front to clarify their perception of your major accomplishments, strengths, and weaknesses. Provide them with a copy of your most current resume and make certain that they are up-to-date on what you've done and any other noteworthy achievements that they may have forgotten.

If you really want to find out the quality of your references - what they are saying and how well they're saying it - you can hire a professional reference checking firm to do this for you. The truth is, many companies don't check references themselves - they hire professional reference checking companies to do all of the reference checking for them and then provide a report of the results. In similar fashion, there are also companies like that provide a similar service for job seekers. So, if you want to be certain, or if you are consistently coming in second or third after a very promising interview process and you suspect it may be your references, then you owe it to yourself to find out what people are saying. Whether you talk to them yourself (always a good idea) or hire a firm to do it (a valuable alternative that offers third-person objectivity), it's a good idea to know what's being said before you start handing out names.

How to Handle the Bad Reference

If you did have a bad boss, someone with whom you didn't exactly see eye-to-eye, it's best to prepare for the possibility that he/she will be contacted. What do you do? Well, if you are currently employed, one option is to simply claim that you are looking confidentially and request that your current employer not be contacted - confidential job searches are very common these days and usually respected.

However, in other cases, you have a few choices:

  1. Sit down with this bad boss and try to come to some agreement as to what might be said should someone call for a reference. This is often a very professional way to leave an organization and come to a professional agreement (not always possible, but often worth a try).
  2. Ask for clarification on areas of weakness, and take a course to address them. If there's no denying the problem or complaint, at least you can now counter with honesty that you are working on improving in that area.
  3. Your only other option is to do nothing, and hope that your other references are so strong that they may outweigh whatever negative reference your last employer provides.

References Checklist

Here's a quick checklist of things to consider when assembling and preparing to hand out a list of references:

  1. Choose your references carefully. Try for 3-5 business references that include your current or most recent boss, and maybe some others who can provide a good perspective on your abilities. Avoid personal and "fluff" references.
  2. Double-check their contact information and current title, especially with older references.
  3. Call your current or previous HR department and ask their policy on providing references - always good to know.
  4. Get copies of your past performance evaluations - a great evaluation is a handy thing to have in case your performance is questioned. If you are a past-employee, some employers may require you to sign a release in order to provide you with a copy.
  5. With every reference, ask them their honest perception of your abilities, achievements, strengths, and weaknesses.
  6. If you fear that a reference might be negative, try to do some damage control - discuss it directly or get training to improve in that area.
  7. If you really want to be sure, hire a reference checking firm to check for you. You get a report on their findings, advanced warning of any problems, and piece of mind.

In the grander scheme of things, most talented HR professionals will weight the odd so-so reference against the other positive references. However, why put them in the position? Your best option is to eliminate the possibility of a negative reference, make the HR person's decision easier, and stand out from the crowd - resume, interview, and references - as the all-around fantastic candidate that you are.


Ross Macpherson is the President of Career Quest, a Certified Professional Resume Writer, and a Career Success Coach who has helped thousands of motivated professionals advance their careers. To receive more valuable career advice, sign up to join his monthly newsletter "Career Quest Café" by visiting



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