Are You Betting on the Wrong Job References?

Published: Mar 24, 2016

Are You Betting On the Wrong Job References?
March 24, 2016
By Jeff Shane for

Imagine this scenario: you are an employee of McKesson Corporation and have just learned that yours is one of the 1,600 jobs the company has announced will be slashed. In completing a new employment application—perhaps for one of the 52 new jobs Braeburn Pharmaceutical will add to their North Carolina facility over the next 5 years—you are asked to identify a number of references (typically 3-5) for prospective employers to contact. In putting your best foot forward, you list those who will provide the most glowing reviews of your professional abilities.

However, it's unlikely that these well-chosen references will be the deciding factor on whether you get that hoped-for new position. The truth is, prospective employers typically look first at the name in the "Former Supervisor" box on your job application, and whether you authorize it or not, your previous supervisor may well get a call from a prospective employer.

Does this mean that your references are no longer important? Quite the contrary—they remain critical to your future employment prospects. However, the key is in understanding who are your critical references, and it is not personal acquaintances, friends or casual associates. Most important are your former supervisors and Human Resources department at your previous places of employment. Employers understand that while confirmation of your dates/title are all that a previous employer is supposed to provide, supervisors are frequently willing to offer them the candid input they seek.

If you anticipate a poor reference from your former supervisor, what is your best course of action? One recommendation is to have a third-party reference checking firm like Allison & Taylor check your key references prior to beginning your job search. If you receive a “neutral” (employment dates/title) confirmation then you can rest easier that this reference will not cost you future employment. However, if a supervisor, HR representative or other party offers negative commentary about you (which, unfortunately, is a very common occurrence) consider a “Cease & Desist” letter issued through an attorney to the senior management of your former employer. Such letters are extremely effective, as the party receiving the letter tends to have little tolerance for someone within their company who is exceeding company policy in offering negative commentary and (in so doing) putting the company at legal risk.

Also note that some negative commentary may be illegal—e.g. defamation of character, discrimination, wrongful discharge, etc.—and you may have stronger legal recourse than a Cease & Desist letter.

In summary, understand that the job references who will “make or break” you are typically your former supervisor and Human Resources department. Never assume that they will follow the verbal indication they may have given you—you simply have too much at stake. Instead, conduct your due diligence and have their input documented by a third party. If negativity is uncovered, you will have some level of recourse as described above and ensure that your new employment opportunity presents itself sooner, than later.

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