THE BLOG
03/23/2014 10:54 am ET Updated May 23, 2014

Beware! A Majority of Job References Don't Say Good Things

For most job seekers, providing a list of references is an afterthought. The toughest part of the job search is over -- landing the interview and performing well enough to get to the "final four" (or five or...). Whew -- it's almost over!

Not so fast!

References may be the soft (not "sweet"!) spot in most efforts to land a new job. This step near the end of the hiring process sabotages many job seekers, just short of the job offer/finish line.

According to a CareerBuilder survey:

  • "Three in five employers (62 percent) said that when they contacted a reference listed on an application, the reference didn't have good things to say about the candidate."
  • "Sixty-nine percent of employers said they have changed their minds about a candidate after speaking with a reference, with 47 percent reporting they had a less favorable opinion and only 23 percent reporting that they had a more favorable opinion."

Yikes!

7 Tips for Avoiding Job Reference Disasters

Since references can make or break opportunities for you, manage your references carefully.

1. Be sure you have each person's permission in advance.

Sure, you can add names to your list of references without notifying the people involved, but that's a risky thing to do.

Perhaps they are on vacation or on business travel somewhere and unavailable for a few days. Knowing this in advance will help you. If the perfect reference for a specific opportunity is out of the office for several days, you can share that information with the employer and also line up a substitute or supplemental reference if the employer doesn't want to wait.

2. Make sure each will provide you with a good reference.

Don't ask if they would be a reference for you! That's too simple a question.

As part of number one, above, pointedly ask them if they would be comfortable recommending you to another employer. Obviously, if they say "no" to that question, don't use them as a reference.

Some people may give you permission to use their name, but, unless you ask, you won't know if they will actually provide you with a good reference, as the CareerBuilder numbers show. Asking the pointed question should help.

3. Prepare your references.

You shouldn't normally need to provide your list of references until you are at a job interview. So, preferably before you go to the interview, tell the people on your reference list that you will be giving their names to an employer. Let them know the employer's name, and the names and job titles of the people who will be interviewing you, as well as the location, and other relevant details.

If you can't reach them before the interview, be sure to do it immediately following the interview.

Help them to help you by reminding them of your accomplishments that are relevant to the opportunity you are seeking. If possible, draw parallels between what they know you have done and what the job opportunity requires.

4. Confirm contact information.

Being unable to contact one of your references because the contact information is wrong or out-of-date will NOT impress a potential employer. So, be sure, when you hand over that list of references, that the information on the list is correct and uses the preferred contact information for each reference.

I don't like having my cell phone number shared, but it's fine to share my office phone number. Other people have quite the opposite preference. Re-confirm information and preferences periodically. Maybe someone has a new or better phone number or email address. Keep what you hand to employers in sync with your references' current information.

5. Protect your references.

Your references are a very important asset to your job search, an asset you should protect. You don't want to exhaust them with inappropriate or less than serious contacts. So, don't put their names and contact information on your resume, your Facebook page, or your LinkedIn and Google Plus Profiles.

Making their names and contact information too public risks inappropriate use (spammy phone calls and email) and badly timed contacts by employers. If possible, you don't want your references called before you have prepared them (see #2 above), and you don't want them bothered by everyone who sees your list.

6. Customize your reference lists.

To avoid over-use of any two or three references, maintain a master list of, preferably, ten or twelve people who can act as references for you. Then, from that list, prepare a short list of three or four references to take to each interview.

If possible, customize that short list so that some people are not "used" so often that they become annoyed or less than enthusiastic about you and also so that the references you do use are as appropriate as possible for the opportunity.

For example, if the opportunity is in a new industry for you, and one of your references currently works in that industry -- or has worked in that industry in the past -- add that person to the list you hand to that employer.

7. Don't abuse your references.

These people are doing you a big favor, and, clearly, they can do considerable damage to your opportunities if they choose.

Ask them their preferences on timing and method for an employer to contact them, and share that information with the employer -- perhaps in a note on the reference list ("Best time to contact: afternoons, preferably not Mondays or Fridays. Best method: personal cell phone or office email").

Do your best to avoid bugging them by contacting them too often or having too many employers contacting them. By staying in reasonable touch with your references (monthly, in most cases), you can judge how well they are doing.

After-Action Reporting

Once the interviews are over and the references have been given to the employer, ask the employer their plans and their process for contacting references. If your references have indicated a preference for time and method of contact, be sure to point it out to the employer.

Then, contact your references to let them know what the employer plans to do, and ask them to contact you when (if) they hear from the employer. This gives you another opportunity to do some reference coaching, if necessary, and to simply touch base with these people.

Thank them, regardless of the outcome.

If you do get the job, take them out for a very nice dinner or buy them a nice bottle of their favorite wine (maybe champagne!) or a gift card for their favorite store.

Even if you don't get the job, your references have tried to help you, so they deserve your thanks -- maybe a fancy cup of coffee at Starbucks or a nice lunch, whatever you can afford that they would like. At a minimum, send them a thank you note.

When "Current Supervisor's Name" Is Required

Perhaps you are completing an online application that requires you to provide the name of your current or most recent supervisor. Particularly if you are currently employed, providing your supervisor's name can be risky -- the reference check could "out" your job search, and cost you your job.

In those cases, it's a judgment call whether or not you provide the name of an earlier supervisor who works for a different employer, leave the field blank, or indicate that you will provide the information at the job interview or later in the process.

Not providing your current supervisor's name on the application may cost you an opportunity, if it is a "required field." But losing that opportunity is probably much better than losing your job. Your call.

If you were fired from your last job, or left because you didn't get along with that supervisor, consider providing the name of your supervisor from a previous job or some other reference - hopefully prepared, in advance, using the tips above.

For the Future

Stay in touch with the people you have worked with, particularly those former bosses who have a good opinion of your work. LinkedIn can be very helpful for this, and so can Facebook (carefully!).

Susan P. Joyce is president of NETability, Inc. and the editor and chief technology writer for Job - Hunt.org and WorkCoachCafe.com.

Follow Susan on Google+ for more job search tips.