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Many people undervalue the importance of references when looking for a job. Often times a good or bad reference can make or break your chances of landing a new job, and just because someone agrees to be a reference does not mean they will be a good reference. It is important to think through your references to make sure they will not only have a lot to say about you, but that those things are good. Luckily, there are some steps that will help you make sure you’re picking the right people as your references. To learn more about references, read below:

1. How important are references when I am looking for a new job?

If you are like most people looking for work, you probably haven’t given your references much thought. Instead, you have focused on your resume, interviewing skills, networking, and what to wear to the interview. However, in these days of tighter job markets and increased security risks, you can be almost certain that you will be investigated by a prospective employer. As a rule of thumb: the better the job and the higher the pay, the tougher the screening process will be for prospective employees. When a prospective employer has completed the first round of interviews and you are among the top candidates, its next logical step is to check your references and interview those individuals to whom you reported.

Your biggest concern should be the quality of your references and recommendations from past employers, because they can make or break your chances of finding future employment. About half of all references that get checked range from mediocre to poor, so it is very possible that the job you lost out on at the last moment had nothing to do with your skill level. It could have had more to do with what a reference or past employer said about you.

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2. I’m starting a job search. What should my strategy be for dealing with references?

If you are looking for a new job, remember that a poor or even lukewarm reference can sometimes cost you the job you want, while a positive reference may help ensure you stand out above other candidates also under consideration. Here’s a ten-step strategy for making sure that your references help you rather than hurt you:

  1. Make a list. Start by making a list of all of your prospective references, beginning with the first job that is relevant to your career today. You need to select those who have carefully observed your job performance, who have seen you in action and hopefully performing well in adverse conditions. But be aware that whether you list them or not, your past employers will be contacted. Other individuals that may prove to be useful as references include: colleagues; subordinates; suppliers & clients; volunteer committee members; pro bono clients. In most situations, you will not want to use relatives as a reference: do you really want Uncle John regaling a prospective employer about your antics as a youth? Be sure to gather all important contact data about every potential reference including: name; title; company; address; telephone number; fax number; and e-mail address.
  2. Narrow the list. After you have made your list of references, select those that you feel will be most willing to give you an excellent report. A typical list of references should include five to ten names, depending on the amount of experience a candidate has accumulated.
  3. Contact your references personally. It is very important to contact each of your references personally. Stay in touch over coffee, over the phone, or by sending them a note stating that you are job hunting and would like to use them as a reference. Be sure to share with your references your current resume and let them know about the position(s) you are applying for as well as the type of qualities the company is seeking. Give them the impression that their references are critical to your obtaining the job.
  4. Confirm your personal information with your references. Refresh their memory regarding the position you held, go over your past responsibilities, and remind them of solid results and accomplishments. It is also not a bad idea to visit the HR Department, if your former employer has one, and verify that all information in your personnel file is correct. Data entry or communications errors are not unusual, so be sure that your HR department’s records correspond to yours. Conflicting data will be perceived as a big negative to a prospective employer, as unfortunately it may be assumed that the job seeker is lying.
  5. Conduct a personal interview. You should also try to learn what your references are going to say about you. If your references have time and are willing to do so, go over with each reference what they will say in response to questions regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Be upbeat and try not to take things personally. During the conversation, update your reference on what you are doing, and how you have been adding experience and turning old weaknesses into new strengths. If they feel you are aware of your own weaknesses it may lead them to say you are open-minded and that you strive to grow professionally. One key skill in the workplace is effective communications. Your reference will feel comfortable stating you are a good communicator if you have filled them in on the “who,” “why,” “what” and “when” of your career path.
  6. Be prepared ahead of time. It pays to take the time early in your job search to identify and prepare your references. You do not want to lose out on a good position because you did not have your references prepared. You can even use your references as very effective networking tools, by mentioning that you are currently seeking a new position and asking if they would mind if you used their name as a reference. Ask them if they know of any current job openings in your field. You can also tell them what you have been doing since the last time you worked with them. Not only is this the courteous thing to do, but it also keeps them updated on your career. A reference who is well informed about the progression of your career will be a much better reference.
  7. Communicate with your references throughout your job search. To avoid burning out your references, you don’t need to call them about every single job opportunity. But when a specific offer or known reference check is on the horizon, let your references know the name of the company who has you under consideration and who may be contacting them for a reference check. When you advise your references of the company name in advance, they are more likely to feel comfortable giving out information about you and to understand the importance of returning the call in a timely fashion.
  8. Follow-up with your references. When you get your new position, make sure you call your references and advise them of your new position. Keep them posted about your career, so that when and if you need them in the future, they will feel warm about you.
  9. Pay attention to details. When giving out references, always check to be sure you are using the correct telephone number, area code & company name. With today’s mergers and fast-paced business environment, things are changing daily. However, if you list an incorrect telephone number, or if a reference has taken a position elsewhere, it looks as though you are totally out of touch with your references. Although letters of recommendation can be helpful, you need to make sure that the information on your letter of recommendation is still correct by contacting the reference periodically and obtaining new letters if the old letters have outdated information.
  10. Consider using a reference-checking service. If you want help in providing good references or if you find that you are losing too many opportunities after several interviews with an organization, you might want to commission a professional reference-checking service. These services typically operate as follows: They will contact your reference and simply state that they are calling to do an employment verification and reference check on (name of client). Typically the reference assumes the service is considering hiring that individual or the service has been hired to check them out for a company that is considering hiring them. The service should never disclose who has actually hired them to perform the reference check, which allows you complete confidentiality and the ability to use their information in court if necessary.

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3. What are some examples of questions that my references will commonly be asked?

While there are very specific questions that are mainly used to confirm that the information you’ve provided is true, such as:

  • What is your relationship to the candidate?
  • When did the candidate work for you and what were their responsibilities?

    Many of the questions will be very general, giving your reference a chance to say as much as possible about you, such as:

    • What are the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses?
    • Would you hire this candidate again? Why or why not?
    • Would you hire this candidate for our position? Why or why not?
    • What was it like to work with/for this candidate?
    • Is there anything else you would like to add about this candidate?

    Therefore, while going through the steps in question 2, it is important not only to think of references that have good things to say, but those that can say a lot. A reference that does not say a lot comes off as not knowing you well enough to be helpful to your potential employer.

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4. My former employer doesn’t allow anyone to give out references. Do I need to worry about contacting my supervisor there?

An increasing number of employers have adopted a policy of only verifying employment, with job title and dates of employment the only information that can be released about former employees. One source estimates that about 70 to 80 percent of American companies forbid employees from giving out extensive references. In many situations, this policy was borne out of actual or potential legal problems encountered by companies where the individuals giving references said too much, or occasionally too little.

It is important to know your company’s policy on giving references. State and federal law varies as to how much disclosure is legally permitted, so it is important to know which regulations and policies govern your company. However, reference practices are ever-changing and therefore very volatile because of shifting company policies, new employees in HR departments, new laws governing references, and company liability for giving references.

References and past employers won’t call and warn you that they are not going to be complimentary. For example, experts in the field have learned that the higher the position under consideration, the more freely references divulge damaging information. If someone had a problem with you and doesn’t want to see you working (or even if someone really liked you and wants to help you land another job), they can and will break company policy. Although you might have assumed that company policies to only confirm limited information will be strictly followed, sometimes information is shared more subtly. For instance, if a reference doesn’t return two or three calls, that raises a red flag. Here is just a sampling of the damaging comments HR people and line managers hear when they check references:

  • “Our company policy prohibits us saying anything. We can only verify dates of employment and title.” (Then the reference goes on to say something like, “Check his references very, very carefully.”)
  • “Are you certain he gave my name as a reference?”
  • “After we settle our lawsuit…”
  • “Let me see what the paperwork says I am able to give out regarding _______.”
  • “Is he still in this field?”

If you have concerns about what your references might say about you, a professional reference-checking service may be able to assist you. While your references may range from stellar to negative, when you know what someone is going to say about you, you can pass on your best references with greater confidence. You will also have the opportunity to stop references from saying things that are inaccurate. More recently, some have used positive references obtained by reference checking services to assist them in their court cases. While the purpose of checking your references should not be to file a lawsuit, it is important for you to know the quality of your references and whether former employers are passing on personal opinions, conjecture, rumors instead of accurate and legally allowable facts.

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5. I put down the senior vice president of my former company as a reference, since we worked together on several projects and had a great relationship, yet the former employer called my direct supervisor (with whom I didn’t get along so well). Why didn’t the company use the reference I gave them?

It’s important to know reporting relationships when considering what prospective employer may do in a reference check. Even though you’ve given the senior vice president’s name as a reference, the prospective employer may still resort to calling the director you reported to if she can’t reach the senior VP. Although you didn’t use that person’s name as a reference, it may have been on the application that you filled out. You may want to advise your former supervisor, even if you do not regularly use him or her as a reference, about the potential for a reference check and explain what the company is looking for.

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6. My company is letting me go. What do I do about references from this employer?

As you probably already know, if you ask prospective employers not to contact your former employer, you raise a red flag. A company considering hiring you will probably call your boss anyway, since they don’t actually need your permission to call. It is not illegal for an employer to give out truthful information or opinions about your work. Do not assume that your employer is prohibited by law from giving more than “name, rank and serial number.”

So, before you completely cut your ties with your employer, find out what your company would say about you to prospective employers. Then try discussing what information you do or do not want released. You may also try writing a generic “to whom it may concern” reference letter about yourself and then asking your employer or supervisor to sign it or use part of it in their own letter.

Be prepared to push for a good letter and also be prepared to discuss changes in the exact wording of the letter. A positive letter of reference can go a long way toward improving your employment future. In a unionized workplace, if an employer declines to assure you a positive reference, consult your union to explore the possibility of filing a grievance.

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7. Do I have any legal claim against the employer for making bad statements about me after I am let go?

It depends if the statements are untrue. A person is defamed when one person communicates a lie or makes a false accusation about another person, either orally or in writing, to a third person, which cause damages to the person’s reputation.

A company – in order to carry on its business efficiently – is entitled to what is known as a “qualified privilege” to make statements about its employees regarding discipline, termination, and references. It is not enough that your employer made a false statement about you. The person making the statements must have acted maliciously or known the statement was false or was reckless in determine whether the statement was true or not.

If your employer gives an unfavorable opinion about your work to another person, you do not have a claim for defamation unless your employer states that the unfavorable opinion was based on a fact which is not true and which damages your reputation. Opinions generally cannot be the basis for a claim of defamation

If you suspect that your former employer is giving out a bad reference, have a friend call and ask for information about you. Your friend may be able to confirm your suspicions.

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8. What are some examples of reference letters?

Here are two examples of reference letters which may be helpful. The first is a modest referral, where you and your employer agree that your employer will not say negative things, but will not overly praise your work either. The second example is an example of the ideal reference, where your employer will agree to say positive things about your work history.

example 1: modest referral

(Company Letterhead)

To: [Either fill in the company name here or make letter “to whom it may concern’]

Re: Willanda Employee

Ms. Employee worked for our company for over ten years. Recently, we have had to cut back our workforce due to economic conditions. Unfortunately, Ms. Employee lost her position with our company as a result of the restructuring. Ms. Employee is knowledgeable of payroll and accounting functions and has proven computer skills. She is also punctual and courteous.

While our company policy precludes us from giving recommendations for employees, Ms. Employee has been given permission to attach her most recent performance evaluations to this letter. Additionally, you may, if you wish, contact her most recent supervisor, Thomas Thomas, for more information about her work at our company.


[the highest level company official obtainable]

example 2: ideal reference

(Company Letterhead)

To: [Either fill in the company name here or make letter “to whom it may concern’]

Re: Willanda Employee

Ms. Willanda Employee was employed by our company for over ten years. Due to economic conditions, our company has had to reduce its workforce. One unfortunate result of this downsizing is the loss of Ms. Employee’s services.

Ms. Employee has consistently been an outstanding performer in our payroll and accounting department. She has in-depth knowledge of accounting principles and an admirable attention to detail. She has had significant experience with the following computer applications: [list here]. She is a creative problem solver and has “saved” the payroll for us on a number of occasions.

Ms. Employee is a punctual, courteous and conscientious worker. If you have any questions, please contact her most recent supervisor, Thomas Thomas. Her outstanding performance evaluations are attached to this letter.

Our company made the decision to outsource our accounting and payroll functions, resulting in the loss of Ms. Employee’s position. We will miss her professional demeanor and teamwork.


[the highest level company official obtainable]

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9. Does my employer have a duty to give a positive reference?

Many states have laws protecting employers who give a negative reference of a former employee. However, many employment law attorneys still advise employers against giving a negative reference and instead, encourage giving a neutral reference. These attorneys argue that giving a negative reference does not benefit either party: the employer may continue to pay unemployment benefits and the employee will be upset at the negative review and have nothing but free time to determine if they have legal action against the employer. However, employers must evaluate the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. If the employee was fired due to serious misconduct, the former employer may face liability for failure to disclose the alleged misconduct. Employers should refer to the state law regarding references and/or consult with counsel before providing an honest yet negative reference.

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10. What can I do to help improve my references?

Your employment references need to grasp the importance of their role in your job search and need to be prepared to respond to your potential employer’s outreach. The more thoughtful, prepared, and responsive your reference, the better the reference will be. As a former employee, it is beneficial to keep in touch with your potential references and update them on what you’ve been up to recently. Ensure that your references are okay with providing their name and email to any of your potential employers. Having a variety of references is also beneficial.

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Some of the content on this page was provided by:
Allison & Taylor Reference Checking Service
(800) 651-2470