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In job search, good references are key

It’s a common worry in a sour labor market. When offers don’t come, job seekers with excellent resumes search for reasons why.

Mellora Hall quit her part-time job in Springfield, Mo., last year in search of a better life and a better job in Las Cruces, N.M. What she got instead was nine months of unemployment.

She applied for hundreds of jobs. Despite a master of fine arts degree, she got few interviews and zero offers. The rejections got her thinking: Was one of her references saying bad things about her?

It’s a common worry in a sour labor market. Many of today’s job seekers have excellent resumes and present themselves well. But the offers don’t come, and they search for reasons why. Finding good references — and making sure that they aren’t undermining you — are often overlooked but important steps in a job search.

How important? After speaking to applicants’ references, companies typically remove an average 1 in 5 applicants from consideration, according to an Office Team survey last summer. The No. 1 area managers wanted to know about? The applicant’s past job duties and experience, the survey of more than 1,000 senior managers found.

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“The reference is one of those things to help a potential employee to really differentiate themselves,” says Robert Hosking, executive director of Office Team, a staffing service specializing in highly skilled administrative professionals and based in Menlo Park, Calif.

The key to finding and keeping good references is communicating with them throughout the job search. For starters, that means calling each previous employer you plan to use for permission to use their name as a reference. But don’t stop there.

“Make sure you have had ‘the discussion’ with them,” counsels Hosking. That means asking if they could share with you what they plan to say about you. “It’s almost like conducting a postemployment review,” he says. The next step is to let them know when a potential employer might be contacting them. “Keep the person in the loop,” says Heidi Allison, managing director for Allison & Taylor Inc., a reference-checking company based in Rochester, Mich. “Think about etiquette.”

When you’ve landed a job, circle back again with a thank-you note to all your references. It’s not only polite, it alerts past employers that you’re moving on and up in the working world. That way, the boss you had when you were an intern won’t be surprised a few years later when you’re applying for a far more senior position, says Allison. Even though she has run her own company for 26 years, she still sends a Christmas card to former bosses — just in case.

Bosses aren’t the only people to consider for your reference list. Think about other managers or co-workers who can provide insight into how you work on a team or complete a project. If you’re a senior manager, is there an administrative assistant who can speak to how you manage others? Hosking also suggests including someone at a club or volunteer group who can reveal a different side of you.

Don’t forget the human-resources manager. If nothing else, you can go over things such as dates of employment and positions held, details that sometimes can prove crucial.

For example: One Allison & Taylor client was accused of lying on his resume because he’d gotten the dates wrong on when he worked at a particular company, Allison says. Another client was knocked out of consideration when human resources at his longtime place of employment said he’d never worked there. “Twenty-some years and they didn’t have him in the database,” she says.

Then there are the occasions when job seekers are victims of a bad reference. Time and again, they have a great interview and then get dropped like a stone. That’s typically when many job seekers turn to a reference-checking service to find out what’s going on. The service calls up references and asks about the job seeker as any potential employer would, then it sends the job seeker the findings.

About half the time, there’s a bad reference, Allison says. “You can’t believe what they say!”

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Although in many states employers can be held liable for saying something negative about a former employee that they can’t back up, managers are often quite open — and negative — about performance. “One guy gave his mother as a reference, and she had bad things to say,” Allison recalls.

Sometimes, those comments reflect facts — such as the firing of an employee — that employers could be sued for if they didn’t reveal it during a job-reference check. Other times, however, the comments are prompted by rivalries or jealousies that unfairly taint a reputation.

During one Allison & Taylor reference check, a former girlfriend still working at the job seeker’s old company called him dyslexic. Some 20 times a month, the company comes across really bad references who say the employee was embezzling, stealing, or committing other nefarious deeds. When those charges are untrue, the company typically sends the reference a cease-and-desist order, which usually takes care of the problem, Allison says.

Are such services worth it? Allison & Taylor charges $79 for each reference check ($99 for executive-level references). Other firms charge less. “It would probably be a big waste of money if [employees] are confident of the way they left their employer,” says Jim Evans, president of JK Evans & Associates, a human-resource consulting firm for employers based in Zanesville, Ohio. “If you left on good terms, you shouldn’t have a thing to worry about.”

Hall couldn’t afford the service on her own, but agreed to a complimentary reference check through Allison & Taylor as a test case for this Monitor story. In her case, all four of her references gave glowing reports. As it turned out, none of them had been contacted by the companies where Hall had applied.

Then, early in January, a government program helping single mothers transition off of government aid hired her, doubling her previous income. Only after hiring Hall did her boss call her references.