The subject of references keeps cropping up, so I think it’s time to beat this drum again. If you haven’t checked recently to see what kind of shape your references are in, you might want to do it soon–for several reasons. For one thing, one or more of them might no longer give you the stellar recommendation you once expected. For another, if you haven’t been in touch in a while, one or more might have encountered personal or professional challenges that make them no longer quite such a good resource as they’ve been in the past.
First, let’s clarify one point about references that people sometimes overlook. The reason I use the phrase “professional references” is that most employers won’t waste much, if any, time, checking personal or “character” references. (I can think of only a few exceptions, such as when you’re applying for a position that requires a security clearance.) Also, when prospective employers are interested enough in you to ask for your references, they don’t necessarily limit themselves to those you provide to them. They can, and often do, contact previous employers and other sources, including people in your LinkedIn network.
Now to the point about why you should check your professional references occasionally. In a recent article by Michelle Rafter, “References: Don’t Assume an Old Boss Still Loves You,” the writer noted that you should not assume things are fine without bothering to check. As she commented, “When it comes to references, don’t assume–it could come back to bite you….Don’t take for granted that a previous employer will verify your job title and employment dates and leave it at that, or that if you left under less-than-ideal circumstances your old boss will keep quiet about it….” Rafter interviewed Jeff Shane, the owner of a reference checking company, and he indicated that in 20 years or so, his company has found that around 50% of the time, they uncover some kind of negative comment.
You can do some discreet calling yourself or, which might be better, ask a trusted friend to do it for you, to see if he/she can get an idea of what’s being said. Under some circumstances, you might want to hire a professional reference checking service to explore the kinds of information your selected references and former employers are providing. As I might have mentioned before, the one I’m familiar with is Allison & Taylor, but I’m sure there are many out there–just make sure they’re reputable before you pay them to do your reference checking.
This doesn’t relate directly to checking your references, but it’s another question that often comes up. Typically, I’ve recommended having a minimum of 3 and up to 5 references; however, the article raised a point that I hadn’t considered, and it’s a good one. You might not want to provide the same references for each position you pursue. Rafter quotes Shane as stating, “Some might be able to talk more effectively to your skill set more than others. So it could be a supervisor or second-level supervisor or close associate.” That being said, you’ll probably want to identify more than 5 professional references to draw from, so you have more choice and also don’t over-work the same ones by using them every time.