Job Seeking? Court Your References Carefully

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By Eileen AJ Connelly -- AP Personal Finance Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Read a few job-hunting blogs, and you might be convinced your references could undermine any chance you have for getting hired without intensive input from you.

Making sure you have the right references and keeping them informed of your job-hunting progress is certainly a necessity. But even in this ultracompetitive job market, experienced pros say it's equally important to avoid badgering busy people who have agreed to do a favor. Heavy-handed efforts to coach them or put words into their mouths could backfire.

If someone spelled out what he should say during a reference check, for instance, Don Straits, CEO of executive career services firm Corporate Warriors, would reconsider offering the reference. "I do not recommend you try to feed them information as to what they're supposed to say," he said.

That's just one of the tips culled from various online sources that our pros guide against. Here are a few other potentially misleading tips, and the alternative advice they suggest:

Tip #1: Find out what your references will say to make sure it's all positive.

The problem: People who agree to help you shouldn't be put on the spot.

A better move: Choose your references carefully, and make sure they are people you know well and trust to support your job search effort. "If they aren't excited to be your reference, then don't list them," said Tyra Tutor, senior vice president at MPS Group, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based staffing and consulting company. "You get to pick these people, so pick wisely."

The strategy: Your references need to be familiar with your work habits and accomplishments, but you can choose people from various aspects of your life. Consider going beyond former co-workers and asking vendors, clients, colleagues from professional organizations or even fellow volunteers, as long as they can speak to your strong points. "If you knew the person only peripherally, that's how they're going to speak about you," said Peter Post, director of The Emily Post Institute and an expert on business etiquette.


Tip #2: Draft talking points and recommendation letters for busy references.

The problem: There's a fine line between helpful reminders and intrusive coaching, and most people won't appreciate the latter. It may even seem dishonest to your reference if you supply too much.

A better move: Remind a potential reference about your successes with certain projects or your abilities in specific areas when you first ask for a recommendation. Send your current resume, but unless you're asked for more, hold off on supplying talking points. "I don't think you should be coaching what your references say," said Deborah Campdera, national director of experienced recruiting at auditing and tax consulting firm Grant Thornton in Chicago.

And never draft a letter unless your reference requests that kind of help.

The strategy: You do want to brief your references so a potential employer's call doesn't catch them off guard, said Vicky Oliver, a career development speaker and author whose latest book is "Bad Bosses, Crazy Co-Workers and Other Office Idiots." The short e-mail you send alerting them that you shared their contact information can include a description of the job you're seeking and some points you discussed in your interview, but don't push too hard.

Tip #3: Negotiate a balanced response from a bad boss or other risky references.

The problem: A former boss with whom you had a difficult relationship is not your best reference choice, and if any bad blood remains, may sabotage your job hunt.

A better move: If you want to use a reference from that job, find a co-worker or a client who will act as your advocate. If the company you're interviewing with insists upon calling your old boss, and you expect a problematic issue to come up, pre-empt any negative comments with your spin on the issue. Campdera said a well-prepared answer can take "the curse" off.

The strategy: If there's any hope for smoothing the situation, call or write your old boss and say you expect a potential employer to call, and you'd appreciate a positive or neutral response. Oliver said asking colleagues or customers from that job to post recommendations on networking sites like LinkedIn can help temper a potentially negative comment from the boss.


Tip #4: If someone says their employer won't allow them to give references, ask for a cell phone or home phone number where you can reach them instead.

The problem: Trying to convince someone to ignore workplace rules has the potential to put his or her job in jeopardy.

A better move: Ask for written references from the company when you resign, or as part of a severance package if you are laid off. If you've moved on already, try contacting human resources and asking for a letter.

The strategy: A policy that prohibits references likely arises out of an excess of caution concerning the potential for a lawsuit, said Laura LoBianco Sword, a partner at Sword Law in New York. It's a common precaution, even though it is difficult to prove damages in a defamation case. But some firms will provide a letter that can be vetted before you leave. "They're more likely to give you the reference then and there, than if you're job hunting three months later and looking for it," Sword said.

Tip #5: Send an e-mail thanking your references if you know they've been contacted or after you get the job.
The problem: An e-mail is impersonal and quickly forgotten.

A better move: Send a short, hand-written note of thanks.

The strategy: A handwritten note will stand out and let your references know you appreciate their help. "It says you took the time and effort to help me, and I'm going to treat you with the same respect," Post said. "When you receive a note, you remember that person. E-mail you delete. Would you rather be deleted or would you rather be remembered?"

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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