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Got a Bad Job Reference? Blame Yourself

Bad Job ReferenceIn the courtroom, you NEVER ask a witness a question unless you already know the answer. Every lawyer from Atticus Finch to Denny Crane has taught us that.

And the same principle holds true for your job references: NEVER list anyone as a reference unless you know they'll speak highly of you.

I read a newsletter recently that included a question from a woman who'd been given a bad reference, and, as a result, did not get the job. She was especially ticked because the hiring manager would not tell her which former employer had badmouthed her (that's a pretty typical policy, BTW.)

In the reply, executive coach Joan Lloyd rightly stated that it was the woman's own responsibility to figure out who the naysayer was and revise her reference list accordingly. Taking that one step further, I would add that the bad reference was the woman's own fault because she obviously failed to check her own references before she gave them out.

OK, I confess I've done the same thing. We probably all have. But we also know the risks you run when you assume that anyone you list as a reference will talk about you in glowing terms.

I know it can be awkward to contact an old boss or colleague to ask for a favor. If you really can't face doing it yourself, there are fee-based services that will check your references for you.

But there are at least three powerful reasons to just do it yourself:

1. It's the polite thing to do.

It's simply not cool to submit someone's name and contact information to another party without their knowledge and consent. If there's time, make your request by email to avoid putting the person on the spot – which brings me to my next point:

2. It gives them a chance to say NO.

There are all sorts of reasons a person might NOT want to be a reference for you (which may or may not have anything to do with you). When asking someone to be your reference, it's important that you give them an easy way out. If you just ask point-blank, "Can I use you as a reference?", they'll probably feel obliged to say yes, even if they want to say no. To be safe, always include a line such as:

"If you wouldn't feel comfortable providing a positive reference, please feel free to  decline. I know a lot of employers frown on giving out references these days, so I completely understand if you can't do it."

That way, they can save face by saying, "I wish I could, but it's against company policy." The last thing you need is to have someone agree to provide a reference, only to damn you with faint praise.

3. It allows you to coach them on what to say.

Once you have an enthusiastic yes from your reference, go ahead and let them know what you'd like them to share (or not share) with your prospective employers. You're actually doing them a favor by providing suggestions, since they might find it tough to come up with specific compliments off the cuff. Don't write a script, but give them some ideas by using such statements as:

  • "I'm applying for ___ jobs, so I'd appreciate if you could address my ___ qualifications more than my ___ skills."
  • "It would be great if you could mention my success on the ___ team. Remember that time we were up against that crazy deadline with no budget?"
  • "They seem really interested in my ___ background, so if you could mention how that's one of my biggest strengths, it would definitely help my case."

I also highly recommend sending a copy of your current resume and cover letter to all your references so they can see exactly what you're saying about yourself. It will help refresh their memories of what you did for them and give them ideas of other nice things to say about you.

On a related note, if you're asking your references for an online recommendation on LinkedIn, help them with some reference material, such as this one from JibberJobber.com.

On another related note, don't put "References Available upon Request" on your resume. Of course you'll provide references if they ask – you don't have to waste valuable resume space spelling it out.

Bottom line: Pre-screening your references is the best way to avoid the surprise stab in the back. When it comes to bad references, there's no cure, only prevention.

UPDATE 10/08: Here's a link with some suggestions for bad-reference damage control!

Have you had employment references who really helped or hurt your job search efforts? Add your thoughts or questions to the Comments box and we'll post a reply!

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