Job References Gone Bad

Kent_seasonsMost people think about job references as a positive part of their career portfolio… but what happens when they end up hurting more than helping?

Who you list and why you list is an important thing to consider. It goes without saying that you should always make sure that the people that you list are “fresh.” By this, I mean that people listed as your references should be ones who can speak most immediately and relevantly to your character, experience, knowledge, and skills.

Never strategically evaluating your reference list can cause more harm than good, especially when you haven’t reached out to them lately.

When was the last time you had lunch with them? Shared a phone call? Or even updated them on your career progress?

Too many times, people list job references, and there they sit, year after year.

Consider this: Our job references have “seasons” which means that there are peak times where connections are vibrant and strong, and other times where those relationships ebb. So ask yourself: Are you really putting forth the strongest (and most recent) personal advocate who can speak in current terms about you and your abilities?

Unlike wine, job references don’t necessarily age well. Someone you listed 5 years ago might not be a person who knows that which you are capable of in the present day.

But many people make critical mistakes and cause their job references to go bad. Here are some areas to watch out for:

1. Everyone says the same thing. Smart career managers think strategically about who they are listing as references, and specifically ask certain people to be a reference based on different facets of what the job applicant has to offer. For example, you might want to list one person who can speak to your team work, another person about your character, another about your expertise, and yet another about your leadership.

2. They don’t know you listed them. I cannot say this enough times, but job seekers absolutely MUST request permission to include a person as a job reference. Sure, you may be best pals, but how do you think it looks to potential employers when someone calls your reference and they are asking specific questions about the job seeker’s abilities? It doesn’t come across as well. And in the worst case scenario, the reference might be put off that you listed them; perhaps they don’t hold you in as high regard as you do them. Be careful about trying to list people as references to “ride their coattails” of credibility. By listing impressive names of people with whom you don’t have a strong relationship, you are only setting yourself up for failure when your ploy is uncovered.

3. You haven’t kept your references up to date. Nothing is as unsettling to people listed as references to get a sudden phone call out of the blue regarding your application to a specific job. Wouldn’t it be a smarter idea to let your references know of job interviews and provide a short overview of where your career is, and how this new position might help you achieve your goals? That way, they will be better prepared to speak to your background in a helpful way, rather than stumbling through a surprise phone call.

Remember to always keep your job references fresh and strong. You’ll never regret it and this will help you to maintain your professional polished brand!

Photo By JonRidinger (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

One Comment

job seeker

I've noticed that an increasing number of employers are requesting references as part of the application process with the resume. This is frustrating because I DO want to contact my references before they receive a cold-call from an employer. But, if I need to contact my references (who may differ depending on the position I'm applying for) for every position I apply for – I risk frustrating my references. Explaining in an application that I will provide references as we move further along the candidate review, makes it look like I'm being difficult, or worse that I'm uncooperative. Suggestions?

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