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Seven Deadly Myths of Professional References

Excited about your prospects for landing that new job?  You should consider what your former boss and other references may say about you.  There is no doubt, for many job searchers, a person’s past will have a direct bearing on his or her future.

No matter what the nature of the job or pay scale, people should take their references very seriously.  They can make or break a hiring decision.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know what your references are really saying about you during a job search?

Myth No. 1:
Companies are not allowed to say anything negative about a former employee.

While many companies may have policies that dictate only title, dates of employment and eligibility for rehire can be discussed, people do break the rules everyday.  Due to human nature, providing a reference may be an emotional call for some.   How about the boss with whom you had philosophical differences or the supervisor who sexually harassed you?  Maybe a boss was just jealous of you?  Half of our clients do receive a bad reference, despite the strict policies in place.

Myth No. 2
Most companies direct reference checks to their human resources departments, and these HR Professionals will not say anything bad about me.

Most human resources professionals will follow proper protocol.  However, in addition to what is said, 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.  One other note, the human resources department will divulge if a person is eligible for re-hire.  Are you?

Myth No. 3
If I had any issues with my former boss, I can simply leave him or her off my reference list and nobody will ever know.

Many companies actually check references without an official list or you even knowing.  They 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 also 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.

Myth No. 4
I should have my references listed on my resume and distribute them together. 

Your references should be treated with kid gloves.  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. 

Myth No. 5
Once a company hires me, my references really do not matter anymore.

Many employment agreements and contracts include a stipulation that says the employer can hire you with a 90-day probation period.  Not only are they evaluating your job performance but, in some instances, checking your background and references.  During this time, your new employer may call your former companies and, should the results be less than expected, they have the legal right to fire you.

Myth No. 6
I sued my former company and they are now not allowed to say anything.

They may not be able to say anything definitive, but do not put it past them to carefully take a shot at you.  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. 

Myth No. 7
There is really no need to stay in touch with former references.

As the saying goes – out of sight, out of mind.  Honor these etiquette guidelines and your references should continue singing your praises for a long time.  First, call your former boss(es) periodically and update them on your career, asking them to continue being a reference for you.  Make sure you thank them for their time.  Next, as you move further up the career ladder in your profession or achieve new educational goals, make sure your references stay abreast of your success.  As you progress, a reference is more inclined to see you in a positive light.  Finally, acknowledge your references with a personal thank you letter or email; offer to take a former boss to lunch or dinner; or send them a thoughtful gift.

This article was written by Heidi Allison, Managing Director for Allison & Taylor, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Allison & Taylor, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

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