Line Up Your References Before Starting Your Job Search


It’s the time of year again when many employees consider changing jobs.  Many hiring officials say your job references – and what they say – are as important as what you say about yourself.

Choose references carefully.  Once you identify them, you have little control over what they’ll be asked or what they’ll say.  Do your homework ahead of time.

Some basic pointers about developing your reference list:

  • Assemble the list early, before you begin interviews.  Ideally, do this when you are writing your resume or CV so you’re matching listed skills with references who can back them up.
  • Pick references who can talk about the skills that will matter to new employers.  Is it technical expertise? People skills? Team-building?  Use the skill set required by an employer in deciding who should talk about them.
  • Be sure your references will present a consistent image about you, your interests, and who you are.
  • Consider a mix of supervisors, coworkers and subordinates.  Varying perspectives can help.
  • if you must list someone who will give a negative evaluation, let the hiring official know that.  It can be as simple as, “He will provide a negative reference.  Here’s why.”  Don’t let the hiring official be surprised.
  • If you don’t want your current employer to know you’re looking for work, consider using references outside work – a former colleague or boss, an accountant, lawyer or other professional you have dealt with, or respected members of the community that know you well.  These are good alternatives.
  • Clearly tell your references about the work you’re seeking and the skills and strengths you want them to talk about.  This is important.  Don’t put them in the position of guessing what to say.  That won’t end well.

Some employers may ask your references to identify others that know you.  Think several rounds ahead, like a chess player.  If a hiring official asks each of your listed references for one more name, who’ll be in that second round? Adjust your initial list as needed if after this analysis you don’t like where that would lead.

Even with your best efforts you may be unable to control who hiring officials contact. Last week it was revealed that LinkedIn, a popular networking site for jobseekers, has a tool called TrustedReferences that allows employers to secretly find current or former bosses and coworkers without your knowledge.  Hiring officials use this tool to build their own list of references, without telling candidates they’re doing so.  You might get a bad reference from a current boss and not even know it.  Article here: On LinkedIn, A Reference List You Didn’t Write.  Some LinkedIn users have sued, claiming that providing this information without permission violates a federal law governing the disclosure of certain personal information.  Actual lawsuit here: Class Action LinkedIn Lawsuit.

Here’s a screenshot from the LinkedIn site, referring to the feature.


What to do if you get a bad reference?  If the reference is provably false or malicious, consider contacting an employee-rights lawyer.   Many states provide some protection to employers who give references, but those protections are limited.  And if the reference-giver is someone who no longer works for the employer, those legal protections may not apply at all.  Instead the reference-giver may be accountable under long-established libel and slander principles.

Categories: Background Checks, Bad/Retaliatory Job References, Defamation, Libel, Quitting Your Job, References, Retaliation

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