Make References Work for You

In a close contest between job applicants, a good reference can be pivotal. The wrong reference can strike a blow.

Tammi Pirri, human-resources vice president for Burlington, Mass.-based Black Duck Software, recently called references for a software developer. One reference was the applicant’s then-current and unsuspecting supervisor.

“The manager was shocked, to say the least, that the person I was calling about was looking to leave their company,” Ms. Pirri says. “We did not hire that individual and he was fired.”

Some employers don’t call references, and companies can restrict information that references share. Still, job seekers should strategize when selecting current and former supervisors, colleagues and subordinates to provide testimonials about their competence and character.

Common reference mistakes include not asking for consent to use people as references, and not letting references know to expect a call.

“We sometimes catch people off guard who didn’t know that they were references and the quality of the discussion isn’t good,” says Mark McKeen, a talent acquisition manager at auto maker General Motors. “That’s a red flag [about] the job candidate’s attention to detail.”

Here are a few other reference mistakes to avoid.

1. Seeking only positive comments

References should offer a balanced view that includes areas for growth. “You need someone who is an advocate, but can also be somewhat objective,” says Nancy Donohoo, partner at Grant Cooper HealthCare, an executive search firm in St. Louis.

When checking references for a health-care financial officer who left a financially troubled hospital, Ms. Donohoo didn’t hear enough details about the cause of the negative financial performance. “The candidate needed to provide references that could give some detailed examples, but I just kept getting surface references who said it wasn’t his fault, that the hospital was in bad shape,” she says.

But people should avoid a reference with a too-negative view. Deborah Keary, vice president of human resources at the Society for Human Resource Management, an Alexandria, Va., professional group, says a former co-worker who had been fired recently asked her to be a reference.

The person was “let go for breaking a company rule that was fairly serious. I said ‘I can’t provide a reference, I know that you did not leave in good standing,’ ” Ms. Keary says. “I wish she had known to not ask me.”

For references on networking websites, job seekers should focus on quality, not quantity. “Don’t canvass everyone you’ve ever worked with,” says Charles Purdy, senior editor at jobs website

2. Mixing up stories

Workers and references should have the same version of a job applicant’s work history.

While recently checking references for a financial-services executive, Geoff Hoffmann, chief operating officer of DHR International, an executive search firm in Chicago, found that the candidate’s account of his departure from a prior firm was too rosy.

“He said he transformed the department and built a loyal following and was seeking his next big challenge, but it turned out that the person was almost forced out and his reference said ‘I can’t imagine he felt this way,’ ” Mr. Hoffmann says. “An individual can completely misread relationships with past employers, [indicating that] this person’s level of self-awareness is pretty low.”

References can also reveal lies. GM’s Mr. McKeen checked references for a controls engineer and found an embellished résumé. “A person claimed that he had several years of experience, which was the minimum threshold, but he had less than three months,” Mr. McKeen says. “That’s an integrity issue.”

3. Picking inappropriate individuals

Before listing a reference, check his or her reputation.

Paula Hunter, executive director of Outercurve Foundation, a Wakefield, Mass., nonprofit software foundation, suggests researching a reference’s online footprint. “Make sure [the person isn’t] saying anything that could put you at a disadvantage,” Ms. Hunter says.

And references shouldn’t lie. Tom Gimbel, chief executive of Chicago staffing firm LaSalle Network, discovered that a bookkeeper applicant listed his brother as a reference. “The [reference] was saying he was a manager and it sounded like he was reading off a script,” Mr. Gimbel says. “The whole thing just fell apart. He didn’t know who the CEO of the company was. There’s only so long you can keep the lie going.”