Workplace Rights

Weekly (12/10/12)

Topic of the Week  Friendly Fire

  • List
  • Talk
  • Rank
  • Coach


What's the big deal with references during a job search? You sign up a few people who are your biggest cheerleaders and give their names to prospective employers. A recent study of hiring managers made an amazing discovery, 62% of references didn't say good things about the applicant. 62%! This is the workplace equivalent of friendly fire. And remember, these are mostly names that applicants supplied. Which reminds me of a hiring manager that I met years ago. He used an interesting strategy when checking references. He'd call outside of normal work hours and leave a message for the reference. He'd say, "Call me back if you think this person is outstanding." He claimed that people who felt that way would always call back. Those that didn't, didn't.

Not only didn't most of the references say good things, according to the study, the vast majority didn't help the person applying for the job. Only 23% had a more favorable opinion after talking with a reference, while 67% were either neutral or negative after the conversation. Ouch. Here are four steps to ensuring that your peeps help you.

List. You need to go back over every job you've had. Really think long and hard about every boss, coworker, vendor and customer that you worked with. With Facebook and Linkedin, these people are often easy to track down today. Make a list.

Talk. You should never list a reference without talking with them first. Of course, you should start by asking for their permission. If they hesitate, don't push it. They're probably sending you a message that they won't be favorable. If they agree, then ask if you can ask a few questions. Don't make them softballs. Ask probing questions like "What are their red flags?" "Would you hire them again?"

Rank. I'm always concerned about "reference fatigue" with people that I want to vouch for me. If I'm in full job scramble, I could be applying for five or more positions at one time. The last thing you want is for your best references to be flooded with calls. That's why it's so important to divide them into three groups, your A's, B's and C's. Save your best guns, the A's, for the most important opportunities.

Coach: As someone who has been a reference, I really appreciate a quick email updating me when someone is applying for a job and how I can help. Knowing that the company is potentially concerned about a specific topic or issue helps me prepare for their questions and puts me in a better position to address them.

For many years the business literature was full of stories saying that fear of a lawsuit prevented many employers from giving anything more than name and dates of employment when called for a reference. With 62% of references not saying good things about applicants, clearly this concern isn't holding people back from expressing how they really feel. Use these reference strategies and you'll get the right kind of callbacks.



VIDEO: Bob Rosner, Weekly Topic contributor, recently appeared on CBS with saavy tips on how to enjoy your office holiday party without killing your career. 
To view:


Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, "The Boss's Survival Guide." If you have a question for Bob, contact him via

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"Let your friends help you."

–Bob Rosner

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