How concerned do we really need to be about references? Aren’t all references predictable as no one will ever provide a poor portrait of someone that they know and probably worked with? Sure, as long as you know you what your colleague will say.
But what happens when the all-routine reference check comes back with a negative? It really is somewhat shocking to either a potential employer, recruiter or HR person. Aren’t potential employees supposed to contact their list of references ahead of time to confirm that they won’t throw them under the bus?
A recent occurrence sabotaged a candidate for whom an offer was impending. Apparently this person forgot to contact one of their former managers after a few years in between. What was supposed to have been a standard ‘good guy’ referral turned into an ‘I wouldn’t hire this person again’ and ‘I don’t know why they listed me as a reference’ situation. Unfortunately this otherwise stellar candidate with years of proven sales success and job stability caused enough concern with the hiring team that they backed out of the offer in the works at the 11th hour. The candidate was/is still perplexed but because they didn’t take an extra five minutes to make advance contact with the deal-breaking person lost this job-seeker a great opportunity.
Historically, references have been known to include best friends, neighbors, (hidden) family members (e.g. with different last names) and just about anyone who would say anything positive about their former or current coworker. Lately, more companies are actually requesting or outright demanding key individuals in a candidate’s life to either confirm or deny a good work ethic or mental clarity. There are fewer ‘friends’ and more ‘managers or supervisors’ that can instantly dictate whether competence as well as any number of other issues would have any factor into hiring.
Legally, companies have to be very aware of the information that they provide. There are companies out there that will only confirm dates for hire and separation; and nothing else. One wrong piece of information provided can turn into a nasty legal affair. But there are many more companies that are happy to share some information to their fellow industry colleagues. ‘Safe’ questions such as (and see above) “Would you hire them back?” and “What kind of employee were they?” are easy inquiries that could provide an amazing amount of feedback.
When authoritative people (manager, supervisors, etc.) are demanded as references, it is much more difficult for those folks to be coached. Providing untrue statements are rare as they need to have their companies’ and their own reputations held in the highest regards. The answer is really pretty simple. When asked for references, one should make a list of personal and professional people. Two long-time friends or, better yet, current or former coworkers in addition to three managerial-type folks are best. Full names, titles (then and now), companies (then and now), phone numbers, and how they were associated to you. Next, call them yourself right before you deliver the list. This provides the latest career data and contact information as well as a confirmation that you are still on their ‘good list’. If you have any doubts as to what one may say about you, find another that is just as good.
Remember that a poor reference can be the difference between the next step in your career and being passed over for a great gig. There are always conflicts that arise to all of us. Unfortunately not all of those can be spun into something positive for you. Something that happened 20 years ago can have little bearing as to what happened within the last 5-10 years. Make sure that your references are up-to-date and make contact with them occasionally; even if you’re not on the job hunt. This way, you will only need to sell yourself and have one less thing to be concerned about.