Your resume is perfect. Your cover letter is a work of art. And your interview skills are top notch. But one of the most important factors in your job search is one you don’t have direct control over: your references.
CareerBuilder found that 80% of employers say they contact references before hiring new employees, and 69% said they had changed their minds about a candidate after talking to a reference. So if your professional references aren’t singing your praises, your job search could stall.
What do employers want from your references? More than a third hope to get a better idea of your past job duties and experience, an OfficeTeam survey found, and 31% want to know more about your strengths and weaknesses. Smaller shares are looking to confirm dates of employment, learn more about your past on-the-job accomplishments, or find out about your preferred work culture.
Unfortunately, many job seekers have references who aren’t able to provide the information employers want. And then, of course, there are those whose comments hurt rather than help. Neither option serves you well.
“You want to make sure you are including your biggest cheerleaders among your job references,” Rosemary Haefner, vice president of human resources at CareerBuilder, said in a statement. “Before choosing someone, ask yourself, ‘Did this person understand my full scope of responsibilities? Can he or she vouch for my skills, accomplishments and work ethic?’ You also want to make sure that you ask your former colleagues if you can list them as a reference. If someone is unwilling, it helps you to avoid a potentially awkward or damaging interaction with an employer of interest.”
With that in mind, when you put together your reference list, make sure these nine people aren’t on it.
1. Your boss, who doesn’t realize you plan to quit
No matter how much you hate your current job, don’t put your career in jeopardy by letting your manager know you’re on the hunt for a better position. If a prospective employer calls your boss looking for a reference, he’ll know you’re looking to jump ship. The result can be a tense working environment. You may even find yourself getting pushed out before you’re ready to leave. To avoid awkwardness, try to keep your boss in the dark about your job search.
“When filling out a job application, there may be a question on the form that asks ‘may we contact your current employer?’ You can certainly check off ‘no’ and add a note stating you are keeping your job search confidential and will provide current references later in the hiring process. Most employers will understand your desire to keep mum about your job search,” job search expert Victoria Crispo explained in an article for Idealist.
2. The manager who didn’t like you
You and your boss didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye at your last job, and that strained relationship can continue to cause problems even after you’ve moved on. Some people assume former employers can only confirm employment and aren’t allowed to say negative things in a reference call, but that’s not the case. A manager with whom you clashed may give you a negative reference, or they can make lukewarm comments regarding your work.
To be sure you can count on a positive recommendation, you need to talk to your former boss before you add him to your reference list. If you sense he won’t be able to speak positively about you, find another reference. And be sure to provide future employers with the contact information for the human resources department if they need to confirm your employment.
3. Your colleague with the messy social media profiles
Before you add a former colleague to your reference list, do some checking up of your own. A prospective employer might Google your reference and land on a social media profile full of comments and pictures that aren’t professional. That can reflect poorly on you.
“It’s important to not only look over your own sites to ensure a prospective employer isn’t viewing any inappropriate or private commentary, but also give your references’ sites a quick glance [with that same eye],” Jeff Shane, president of Allison & Taylor, a reference-checking firm, told Fast Company.
4. The former co-worker you haven’t talked to in years
Co-workers from two jobs back who you haven’t talked to since your going away happy hour don’t make for good references. The last thing you want a prospective employer to hear when they call your reference is “Who?” Even if they do remember you, they might not recall enough about your work to provide a useful reference.
If you’re convinced that a colleague from your previous life could be the perfect reference for the job you’re seeking, “you’re going to have to bite the bullet and rekindle the relationship,” career coach Lea McLeod reports for The Muse. That means reaching out, explaining why you want to reconnect, and giving your ex co-worker a heads up on what you’re up to now so he or she is able to provide a strong recommendation for you.
5. Anyone who doesn’t know they’re on your reference list
Contacting your references before handing their phone number or email address out to employers is the golden rule of job reference etiquette. Not only is it courteous, but it also helps prevent the problem of an unprepared reference providing a weak recommendation.
“If you list former bosses on your reference list and they are unaware of it, you risk them being taken by surprise, and even possibly giving a shaky recommendation,” recruiter Lindsay Olson wrote in an article for U.S. News & World Report. “Always ask for permission to use someone as a reference, and give them as much information about the jobs you’re applying for as possible.”
6. A friend or family member
Your friends and family may know you better than anyone, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be good references. For one, they usually aren’t able to comment on your professional experience, and that’s what employers want to know. They’re also unlikely to be truly objective, which means employers aren’t going to take what they say very seriously. And if you’re listing your college buddy or favorite cousin as a reference because you think their impressive job title will sway an employer, think again.
“It’s pretty common for people to list people with impressive titles as references who we can easily discover are actually their roommates,” Preston Wiley, the CEO of Sewell Development Corp. told Monster.
7. The phantom reference
So you’ve burned a few bridges in your career and don’t have anyone to list as a reference on your employment application? Some desperate people will enlist a friend to pretend to be a former employer, while others will go so far as to hire a company that will fabricate an entire job history (including references). Overall, 30% of HR professionals say they’ve spotted a fake reference on a job application, a CareerBuilder survey found.
Even if you’re in a tight spot, using a fake reference isn’t a smart strategy. If the employer realizes your job reference isn’t legit, you’ll be out of the running for the position. It’ll be even worse if they find out after the fact. Your job could be in jeopardy, not to mention your reputation will be in tatters.
8. Your used up reference
When your job search drags on without any offers, you may find yourself asking the same people to vouch for you again and again. Make sure that you’re not burdening them with your requests. Check in to make sure calls from prospective employers aren’t taking up too much of their time, or develop a deeper pool of potential references so you’re not always relying on the same people.
“It’s a time commitment, and you don’t want to disrespect your former co-worker’s time by putting that person in a position where that colleague resents talking about your skill set,” Jim Giammatteo, author of No Mistakes Resumes, told Fast Company. “You’re probably not the only one using them as a reference.”
9. Your flaky colleague
You want your reference to be available when a hiring manager calls them. If you know your colleague never answers his phone, rarely checks his voicemail, and ignores emails, think twice before passing his contact information onto a potential employer. At best, the person checking your references will be annoyed and frustrated. At worst, she’ll think your reference is dodging her calls because he doesn’t have good things to say about you.
“[Not] returning calls for a reference often signals, I don’t want to have to give a bad reference for this person, so I’m just going to ignore your call,” career expert Alison Green of Ask a Manager wrote.
More from Money & Career Cheat Sheet:
- 10 White-Collar Jobs That Don’t Even Pay $60,000 a Year
- Don’t Quit! How to Happy at a Crappy Job
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