Killer Myths About Job References

6 faulty assumptions that klll job offers, & addressing a job history problem.

Posted May 24, 2018

MaxPixels, CC0
Source: MaxPixels, CC0

You’ve worked hard to get near your job search’s finish line. After applying for oodles of jobs, networking ad nauseam, surviving rounds of interviews for naught, finally a would-be employer says, “Okay, now we just need to check your references.”

Gulp! You fear your previous boss could kill the deal. But then you comfort yourself with one or more of these myths, derived from my new book, Careers for Dummies:

  • “My company’s policy is to not give references other than the dates of employment and whether fired for cause.” (“For cause” is a legal term referring primarily to willful bad conduct rather than poor performance.)

Even in such cases, tone and subtle language difference can speak volumes  A monotonic, “Yes, he did work here and was not terminated for cause” is different from an enthusiastically chirped, “Yes, he worked here and left voluntarily.”

  • “I got my past employer to agree to give a positive reference in exchange for my signing the severance agreement.”

Again, tone can tell all. There’s a Grand Canyon of difference between “He was a good employee” said iperfunctorily, and an effusive, “He was a good employee!”, let alone “He was a great employee!”

  • “I won’t include my boss among my references.”

Even many moderately savvy employers insist on a reference from your most recent boss or two.

  • "I’ve found three people who will say nice things about me. I’ll list just those and that’ll take care of the problem.”

Some employers, with your permission, will contact the department you worked in and ask folks about you. For important positions, they may even ask if they can visit that workplace. If your coworkers and boss there weren’t thrilled with you, you’re in a Catch-22: Say yes and they may spill the beans. Say no and the employer will wonder why.

Tip: Even if your boss loves you, don’t list any references on your resume. Listing them encourages employers to contact them early in the process. As a result, your references may get contacted so often as to get annoyed. The time to give references is when the reference check is a final step between you and a job offer. Most employers understand that to be appropriate, if only because you don’t want to let your current employer know you’re leaving until you have to.

  • “In my state, they can’t ask me to check the box saying whether I have a criminal record.”

That’s true in some states to help ensure ex-offending job applicants are treated the same as non-offenders. Putting aside whether that’s fair to people who have lived on the straight and narrow, even in those states, an employer can, in most cases, make job offer contingent on a check of criminal record.

  •  “I can preempt the entire problem by omitting my infelicitous places of employment.”

Many employers use a background checking service, not just to check references, but to determine if you’ve omitted places of employment. Yes, you can refuse to have the employer do a background check but that could make an employer wonder why.

The solution to all this is the Boy Scout one: honesty. As every PR pro knows, the key is to get the bad news out early. Your employment wart will be more easily dismissed early on, than if the employer unearths it later. Of course, there’s no reason to portray yourself primarily based on that.  Certainly focus on the positive, and right after you’ve given an answer you sense the employer really likes, briefly put the best face on your job history problem. For example, “I pride myself on my integrity so I want to tell you that my experience on my previous job wasn’t the best.” Then, briefly put on the best legitimate face you can on that and ask, “I’m hoping that’s not a deal killer. What do you think?” With that crisp integrity, you may turn that lemon into lemonade, or at least water.

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