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Do You Know What Your Former Boss Will Say About You?

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Resumes Win Interviews, But References Win Job Offers

It has been said that “Inquiring minds want to know” and no minds are more inquiring than those about to hire you. Rest assured, you will be investigated. As a rule of thumb, the better the job and the higher the pay, the tougher the screening process. If you are up for a good job at a visible company, your references and past employers will be checked in considerable detail. A check of your references is simply the beginning of the investigation a prospective employer will conduct.

When a prospective employer has completed the first round of interviews and you are among the top candidates, their next logical step is to check your references and interview those individuals to whom you reported, and/or their company’s HR representative. Are you certain these individuals will seal the deal for you, or will they kill it?  If you are like most people, you probably haven't given your references much thought. Instead, you have focused on your resume, interviewing skills, networking, and what to wear to the interview. If so, consider a necessary paradigm shift.

Your biggest concern should be the quality of your references and recommendations from past employers, because they will almost certainly make or break your chances. About half of all references that get checked offer commentary that is mediocre to poor about the former employee, so it is very possible that the great job you lost out on at the last moment had nothing to do with your skill set.  Rather, it could have had more to do with what a reference or past employer said about you. A negative reference is a frightening scenario when your livelihood is at stake.

Here is a sampling of the damaging comments HR people and supervisors commonly hear when they check references:
  • "Our company policy prohibits us saying anything. We can only verify dates of employment and title." Then the reference goes on to say something like, "Check his references very, very carefully."
  • "Are you certain he gave my name as a reference?"
  • "After we settle our lawsuit..."
  • "Let me see what the paperwork says I am able to give out regarding _______."
  • "Is he still in this field?"
References and past employers won't call and warn you that they are not going to be complimentary. The reference situation is ever changing and therefore very volatile because of shifting company policies (not that many employees choose to follow them anyway), new employees in HR departments, new laws governing references, and company liability for giving references.

You are well advised to take more control of your career momentum by finding out what every potential reference will say about you. Whether your reference’s input is stellar or negative, there is a “peace of mind” element in knowing precisely what your reference has – and will say - about you.  This allows you to proactively manage your reference-checking process - you will be able to pass on your best references with greater confidence. You will also have the legal recourse to stop references from saying things that are not true, inaccurate or potentially damaging.

Increasing Your Chances of a Good Reference

Here are some general rules of thumb to maximize your prospects with your job references:

1. Make sure your records are correct. Occasionally an interviewee looks bad because their former HR department did not have the same job date and title information in their file as the candidate did on their resume. Data entry or communications errors are not unusual, so check with your HR department to ensure that their records correspond to yours. Conflicting data will be perceived as a negative to a prospective employer.

2. Maintain active and positive relationships with your references. Stay in touch over the phone or over coffee. Keep the reference up-to-date about your progress, and make sure you have the most up-to-date information about them. If the reference's title (or name) has changed, or if they've left their position and you've provided old information to the prospective employer, it doesn't look good.

3. Advise a reference about an important opportunity. To avoid burning out your references, don't contact them about every single job opportunity. However, if a particular position is very important to you, call the reference and give them details about what the company may be looking for.

4. Know reporting relationships. Even though you've given the senior vice president's name as a reference, the prospective employer may resort to calling the director you reported to because she can't reach the senior VP. Even though you have not given that person's name as a reference, it is on the application that you probably filled out. You may want to advise your former boss about the potential for a reference check and explain what the company is looking for.

5. Know your company's policy. Although federal law restricts reference information, some states now allow more extensive disclosure. Know which regulations and policies govern your company. In addition, be aware that some employees will intentionally or unknowingly break company policy in offering references. Make sure that works in your favor by checking with references to gain an understanding of what they might say.

6. Don't rely on relatives or letters of recommendation. You are well advised not to let Uncle John regale a prospective employer about your antics as a youth. Also, although letters of recommendation can be helpful, information such as titles and even names can change over time. Make sure that the information on your letter of recommendation is correct by contacting the reference periodically.

7. Use a reference-checking service. If you want help in identifying your favorable (and unfavorable) references or if you find that you are losing too many opportunities after several interviews with an organization, you might want to commission a professional reference-checking service. Check to ensure that the service has the professional and legal personnel that can develop a strategic use of your references. Typical service fees range from $79 to $99 per reference checked, depending on level of job position being sought.

For the past 25 years,, an Allison & Taylor Reference Checking, Inc. company, has been assisting job seekers in determining the quality of their references. Founded by Heidi Allison, President of SOCRATES, this company has been featured in Glamour, New Woman, Worth, NBEW, Detroit News and St. Petersburg Times. Allison & Taylor is headquartered in Rochester, MI. We have a sound management team and an exceptionally well trained and motivated staff of loyal professionals committed to performing this service at the highest level. For additional information on this crucial service, call Heidi M. Allison, Managing Director, at 800 890-5645 or visit their comprehensive web site at

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