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Are your references sabotaging your job search?

My boss said WHAT about me?

You got the interview, and it seemed to go well. The interviewer says, “We just need to check your references and we’ll get back to you.” But the next time you talk to the interviewer, there’s a different tone — they “decided to go another direction.” Uh-oh, there may be a problem with your references.

If you left your most recent company on bad terms, this might not be a surprise. But what if you recently left a company where you had a new supervisor who didn’t know you well? What will he — or she — say about you?

Are your references sabotaging your job search? There are three possible outcomes with a reference check. The reference may provide no additional information to influence your employment prospects, or he or she may either help or harm your chances. Therefore, it is important to carefully consider who you provide as a reference to a prospective employer, assuming you are given the opportunity to submit names for the reference check. Even a “friendly” reference may unintentionally create problems for you.

A 2010 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey found 76 percent of organizations conduct reference background checks for all job candidates. The survey defined “reference background checks” as verification of information provided by a job applicant or communication with people regarding the job applicant. This statistic did not include credit and criminal background checks. Prospective employers generally contact 2-3 references for each job candidate.

Reference checks are particularly common in some professions, including science, legal, healthcare, technology, operations, and customer service roles.

According to reference checking companies, nearly half of all reference checks result in a negative outcome. This is particularly true when you are paying to have your references checked, because you’re more likely to have issues that would result in a negative reference check. But isn’t it better to know if your references are causing you problems, instead of just wondering?

Unlike a background check or credit check, there is no central “bureau” (like Experian or Transunion for credit reports) for companies to tap into to obtain the information easily. So companies must conduct reference checks with individuals in a position to provide information about you as a candidate.

References respond differently to inquiries from people they know than they will to third party requests — whether it’s a prospective employer or a third party reference checking firm.

If you suspect a previous employer may be a problem, one way to protect yourself is a pre-interview reference check. Like homeowners who order an inspection before putting their home on the market, it allows you to identify and correct deficiencies.

You could have a friend, family member, or colleague call and pretend to be a hiring manager, or you can hire a professional reference checking firm. In addition to more accurately simulating an actual reference check, these companies are also trained in techniques to elicit possible negative information, including reading nonverbal or subtle verbal cues.

With a professional reference check, you’ll also receive the information in writing, in case you need to pursue legal action. If damaging information is uncovered, you want a third party to be able to provide legally admissible information. Some services will provide certified reports and sworn affidavits for this purpose for an additional fee.

In addition, a friend or family member trying to check references on your behalf likely won’t be as diligent or persistent as a professional service, especially if multiple contacts are required. A “blocked number” on caller ID can be suspicious. And a professional service should be able to handle returned phone calls more easily, when a personal reference might receive a return phone call from a reference at an inconvenient time, potentially giving away that you’re checking on your references.

A friend may ask illegal questions inadvertently or allow something to “slip” during the conversation. Professional reference checking services know the law, and will protect your confidentiality. In addition, some states don’t allow you to record conversations without the agreement of both parties — you don’t want your friend to be sued if they don’t know the law.

Some companies have a policy to direct reference checks to the Human Resources department. An independent reference checking service can verify if that policy is being followed.

Do you know what your references will say about you? Even if you think your reference will speak of you positively, wouldn’t be nice to know for sure?

Download your FREE guide to understanding when it's time to hire a professional reference checking service.

Join our Dream Jobbers Facebook Group for more resources, training, tips and live videos to help you in your job search!

Ashley Watkins, Career Coach and Nationally Certified Resume Writer with Write Step Resumes, LLC, offers high-quality career documents and services to job seekers and career changers that generate more interviews and higher salary offers. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or via Click here to schedule a FREE consult today!

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