#5: Bad References

26 Jan

This topic is a catch 22 for me.  On one hand, I am grateful for bad references because it allows me to dodge a bullet.  The reason we check references is to determine what we couldn’t from the candidate in one or two hours of interviewing, so it’s imperative to have a second, third and even fourth opinion and hiring decisions are often made or broken at this stage in the game.

On the other hand, it’s hard for me to believe that people would be so careless about whose contact information they share with prospective employers and how they choose to share it.  Are you betting on the chance that I won’t actually call them? Or maybe just crossing your fingers behind your back and hoping that I will catch your ex-boss on a really good day and he will all of sudden forget about the time you showed up drunk to the Company Picnic?  Risky move people.

References have become sort of a joke these days because, by and large people give a list people who they’ve got in their back pocket.  References, just like endorsements on Linked In have somewhat become Quid Pro Quo in this  job market and so they become less valuable.

I guess that’s what makes it really annoying when people give me the contact information of Directors, Business Owners, and VP’s who don’t have anything positive to say, if they even remember the person at all.  Or even better, being dodged by a reference.  “Um, I’m sorry Miss but it’s our policy not to give out references, let me connect you to HR who can provide you with dates of employment.”  That’s so BS.  What would have been more truthful is “I’m sorry Miss, but we are in California, and I realize that if I tell you the truth about this employee, I may face litigation for costing him your job opportunity.”

You need to develop a good reputation amongst your colleagues, managers, peers, professors.  You need to always leave on good terms and ask permission to use people who you influenced in a positive way as references.  Be sure that those people have good things to say – and good examples of when you were able to accomplish something, or add value to the team.  Don’t exchange Linked In Recommendations with 20 people who all got laid off at the same time.  Value your reputation, and stay connected with people who have valued your contribution in the past.

A few more tips on references:

Don’t ever put references on your resume (names/contact information) – for multiple reasons:

1) You need to show respect for the busy, successful people in your life and not thank them for their loyalty to you by broadcasting their name, title and phone number to anyone who can pull up your Monster profile.

2) Staffing agencies use references as sales leads.

3) It shows that you have never been busy enough in your previous jobs to appreciate your direct line being confidential.

Don’t give me a reference list with just names and phone numbers.  I need to know your relationship with each person and at least how long you’ve worked with or known them – otherwise I sound like an idiot when I call them and waste 2 more minutes of their time trying to figure it out.

If you don’t give me any references who you directly reported to in the last five years, it’s a red flag.  Aunt Alice can’t give me the scoop and you know it.

Cultivate a reference list of people who you’ve impressed while at work in the past.  Reach out to them to let them know you are on the job market, ask their permission to use them as a reference and then get the number that they would prefer to be contacted on.  Be sure to tell them what types of jobs you are going after and how you feel that your experience with them may highlight some core competencies that your prospective employer will want to hear about.  That way, they have refreshed memories, and will be targeted in their comments about you.

Oh and finally, don’t use a letter of recommendation that is ambiguous about your contribution.  I have to think that they are ambiguous because they don’t want to tarnish their own reputation by recommending someone that isn’t great, especially in writing.  Often people get letters of recommendations from CEO’s and VP’s when they are laying a bunch of folks off and need to feel better about themselves while doing so.


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