Job Search Stalled? 5 Ways to Keep Your References From Killing Your Career

You're changing jobs. You know you'll need references for your next career move. You've done a great job so you should not worry about getting a reference – right?


References can sabotage even the most sophisticated, well-executed job search. Sometimes you can lose an opportunity when your reference thinks he's helping you out 100%.

Here are 5 ways to make your references work for you, not against you.

(1) Skip the 'To Whom It May Concern' letters.

Clients often tell me their well-meaning bosses offered to write a 'To Whom It May Concern' letter on your behalf. These letters used to be common 20 or 30 years ago.

Today, corporate employers rarely pay attention to these letters. In fact, often hiring managers will be skeptical about any written correspondence.

Let's face it: employers tend to be conscious of lawsuits. They prefer phone calls that are not recorded. When they need a letter, they supply their own forms and they prefer letters sent directly to them.

You will find exceptions in some industries. For example, university professors and administrators typically submit three letters of reference with each application. Often these references will be delivered directly to the hiring department.

(2) Research the way your present boss answers a request: "Can you supply a reference for John?"

Ask fellow employees about their experiences. You might even get a friend to call on your behalf or hire a reference checking service. Expect surprises.

Some well-meaning managers avoid giving anyone a glowing recommendation. 'Nobody is that great,' they say. 'I want to be honest.'

But of course everyone else exaggerates and your reference's well-intentioned honesty will place you at a disadvantage.

Other references are just clueless. My college 'Nick' genially wanted me to get a great opportunity when he wrote a letter for me. But he added a line suggesting I might be 'something eccentric.' I was applying for administrative positions in universities, which tend to be fairly conservative.

I had no idea what was going on and wondered why I was not getting more invitations to interview. One day an interview committee member asked me, 'What on earth does he mean?'

'We are friends,' I said, truthfully, and reached for the phone.

Nick was completely baffled ('I mean it as a compliment') but he agreed to revise his letters so I would sound like the well qualified, experienced, and highly professional candidate I was.

(2) Before supplying names, obtain permission (and be sure they are still available).

You come to the moment of truth in your job search. Your future boss says, 'I am impressed with what I've seen. May I call a few references? '

To prepare for this moment, get permission to give out names. And take the extra step: Find out what happens next.

Your boss may be required to refer all calls to Human Resources. Or she may be moving to a new career and you are part of the past she wants to forget.

When I taught at a university, students often asked if they could list me as a reference for jobs and graduate programs. But sometimes I would get a surprise request from someone I rarely remembered, creating awkward moments for all of us.

After I left the university, I was not always available to serve as a reference. While traveling or moving, I could not respond to requests, even when I wanted to. If I'd known my name would have been brought up as a reference, I would have warned the students and encouraged them to find alternatives.

(3) Watch for red flags in the hiring process.

If your job prospects get derailed mysteriously, over and over again, consider hiring a professional service to check your references. The service will handle your request professionally and (if you've chosen wisely) ethically. They'll call to say, "I'm checking references on Tim Toole."

A quality service will not pretend to be an employer. They do not have to. You'd be amazed how managers will respond to a simple request for a reference.

One reference-checking consultant told me, "The manager who answered the phone said, 'Just a minute.' Then, without covering the mouthpiece, he yelled, 'What did the lawyers tell us to say about Tim?' "

And that's how one job seeker solved the mystery of Who Killed Tim's Career Change.

(4) Remember: the world looks different on the other side of the desk.

By the time you've gained some seniority in your field, you're probably familiar with standard firing processes. But when you need to change carers, you may be surprised to discover some recent changes, as well as some unspecified rules.

Your industry may be dominated by a club of insiders. You may never be asked for references: your future boss just calls someone he knows until he reaches a friend of a friend.

Or your field may be very structured, with all references checked just by a human resources department, even if you're quite senior.

It's important to understand common practice because any deviation should be viewed as a red flag. You may not turn a job down but you need to dig deeper before accepting a position in a company that comes across as "different."

(5) Be proactive.

Let's face it: writing reference letters adds hassle to somebody's day, especially when your reference is not familiar with your target market. If appropriate, offer to follow up or draft a list of key points to emphasize in the letter.