Professional References: 7 Deadly Myths

Job seekers make many false assumptions about their professional references: They think they can simply leave bad references off their resumes and that their references don't matter to an employer after they've started a new job. Here, the vice president of a reference checking firm dispels job seekers' seven most common misconceptions about professional references.

By Jeffrey Shane, vice president, Allison & Taylor Inc.
Wed, April 22, 2009

CIO — Thinking about your prospects for landing a job that you've interviewed for? As you weigh your odds, consider what your former boss and other professional references will say about you to prospective employers. What they tell hiring managers can be the difference between a coveted job offer or more time on the job search circuit.

You can't assume that your professional references will give you a glowing review, even if you were a model employee. The recruiters and hiring managers conducting reference checks are skilled at getting references to reveal even the most perfect candidate's foibles.

And if you weren't a star employee, it will be even easier for recruiters and hiring managers to detect that fact when they speak with your previous employers.

You may think, 'My previous employers aren't allowed to say anything bad about me', but you're wrong. That's one of the most common myths about professional references, and it haunts naive job seekers all the time.

Job seekers make many erroneous assumptions about their professional references: They think they can simply leave bad references off their résumés and that their references don't matter once they land a job. In fact, prospective employers can and will track down the references you don't want them to find—and they'll continue to do so even after you've accepted a job offer.

For more information on professional references, see Professional References: What Do People Really Say About You?

In an employers' market where hiring managers have the time to source a prospective employee's professional references, job seekers must understand how reference checking actually works, the amount of control they have over their references, and how easily a good professional reference can go bad. Job seekers who know how prospective employers will mine their references will have an advantage over those who don't.

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

Reality: While many companies have policies that dictate that they can only discuss a former employee's title, dates of employment, and eligibility for rehire, people break those rules everyday. Providing a reference may be an emotional call the boss with whom you had philosophical differences or the supervisor who was jealous of you. Over 50 percent of Allison & Taylor's job seeker clients receive a bad reference, despite the strict policies their previous employers have in place.

Myth No. 2: Most corporations direct reference checks to their human resources departments, and those people won't say anything bad about former employees.

Reality: It's true that most human resources professionals will follow company protocol with respect to reference checking. However, the professionals conducting reference checks evaluate how something is said, not just what is said. They listen to tone of voice and note the HR staffer's willingness to respond to their questions. So even if the HR person doesn't say anything blatantly negative, their tone or reticence can speak for them. If they want to discreetly indicate to someone checking references that a former employee was problematic, they'll tell the reference checker, "Check this person's references very carefully."

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.

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