by Jeffrey Shane, vice president, Allison & Taylor Inc.

Professional References: 7 Deadly Myths

Apr 22, 20096 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

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.

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.

Reality: Many companies actually check references without an official list from you or without you knowing they’re checking your references. They do so by conducting a social security check to determine where you have worked in the past. Then, they call the human resources department or office administrator at each employer for a reference. Reference checkers employ this practice to see if a prospective employee has left any significant places of employment off of a résumé, which is a red flag for prospective employers.

Myth No. 4: I should list my references on my résumé.

Reality: Your references should be treated with kid gloves. Only provide them when asked. The last thing you want is for a number of companies that may or may not have a real interest in hiring you bothering your references. What’s more, ideally, you want the opportunity to meet with a prospective employer first and make a favorable impression before any reference checks take place. If you suspect a former boss might give you a less than favorable reference, you can use the interview to proactively address that particular situation before it comes up during a reference check.

Myth No. 5: Once a company hires me, my references don’t matter anymore.

Reality: Many employment agreements and contracts include a stipulation that says the employer can hire the employee under a 90-day probation period. During that time, the employer evaluates your job performance, and in some instances, it is also checking your background and references. If your employer obtains negative feedback from your references, the company can let you go with impunity.

Myth No. 6: I sued my former company, and now no one at that company is allowed to say anything about me.

Reality: Your former employer may not be able to say anything definitive, but do not put it past people there 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.” That’s another red flag for prospective employers, many of which are uncomfortable hiring someone who has a legal history.

Myth No. 7: I don’t need to stay in touch with former supervisors.

Reality: You should call your former bosses periodically to update them on your career and to ask them if they’ll continue being a reference for you. You want your references stay abreast of your success because as you progress, a reference is more inclined to see you in a positive light. Always thank your references for their time. You might want to treat them to lunch or dinner, or send a thoughtful gift to them.

Honoring these professional reference etiquette guidelines will ensure that your references sing your praises for a long time—no matter how stealthy the professional reference checkers may be.

Jeffrey Shane is vice president of Allison & Taylor Inc., a firm that provides reference checking services on behalf of professional- and executive-level job seekers.