I’ll never forget the first time I conducted a reference check that went south. At the time, I recruited and supervised volunteers for a nonprofit organization. I naively assumed this part of the process was just a matter of dotting my “i’s,” thinking, “What kind of idiot would list someone who doesn’t support him?”
Well, in one instance, the person I called didn’t know the person I was calling about. In another, the reference said something to the effect of, “Oh my God, she applied to volunteer with your organization?! No, no, no. I can’t recommend her.”
Since then I’ve had my fair share of bizarre experiences on the other side of the reference equation as well. One woman asked if I would provide one for her sister—who I had never met. Another acquaintance asked if I would recommend him because he was applying to a coveted, high-level position in my company, never mind the fact that he had been fired from multiple jobs, was never on time to anything, and had made an ass of himself in front of me more than once.
Having a bit more experience under my belt, I now realize that many people don’t quite comprehend the point—or importance—of a reference. This is not the professional equivalent of social media “likes.” Your potential boss isn’t going to assume it’s a set of endorsements; she’s going to contact the names on your list to dig for information about the type of employee you are.
Because I don’t want you to look like a fool when an employer contacts the names you’ve provided, I’ve compiled a list of people you should think twice before using.
1. You Haven’t Had Contact With the Person in Years
It’s best to use people who can talk about the amazing work you’ve done recently, your up-to-date industry knowledge, and your work ethic in general—lest a hiring manager wonder if you’re hiding something about your recent experience. Plus, you don’t want to use someone who may not actually remember you or the great work you did. If there’s someone from your past who’s so important that you believe including him would benefit you despite your distance, here’s a guide to help you reconnect in a way that increases your chances of getting a good reference.
2. You Don’t Know the Person
It might be tempting to ask a friend of a friend of a friend who works at your dream company to give you a reference. Don’t. If they don’t know you, anything they say will be a wild guess, and no sane person would lie to their employer for a stranger. If you want to leverage this loose connection, do it the right way by asking for an introduction and sharing information about yourself and why you’re a good fit for the company, in a gracious and non-obnoxious way.
3. You Don’t Know the Person Well
A vague acquaintance isn’t much better than someone you don’t know at all. She’s going to struggle to answer questions about you with any depth. When her responses are shallow and vague, your potential employer will wonder why you don’t have people who can speak intelligently about your experience and abilities. As with someone you don’t know, if your acquaintance works at your dream company, do your homework first if you want to include her.
4. You Never Actually Worked With the Person
Your references need to be able to talk about your professional accomplishments, how you handle challenges, your specific skills, and so forth. It’s okay if the work you did together was volunteer-based or connected with a student or community organization, especially if you’re a recent graduate or returning to the workforce after an absence. It’s not okay if there’s no actual work—just lots of fun times—in your history together.
5. The Person Has a Bad Rep
This is most important if you’re applying to a company where your reference is already employed. While you may not know another person’s reputation, you can make an educated guess by the way he talks about work. If it’s full of bitterness, complaining, and stories of confrontation, you might think twice about using him.
6. The Person Has Been Out of the Workforce for a Decade (or More)
There may be a person who worked with you previously, who you still know well, who could talk at length about how great you are. But if she’s out of the loop with current industry trends, her endorsement may be of little value because she can’t talk about your industry knowledge. If you do include her, be sure your others are current ones!
7. The Person Fired You
I wish I didn’t have to explain this, but I’ve actually been asked, “How do I deal with the fact that one of my references fired me?” There may be times when you can’t avoid a potential employer talking with a past employer with whom you had a terrible relationship. But you don’t have to serve that up on a silver platter by including them on a document you control. There’s no universal mandate that you have to use your most recent (or any past) supervisor for this. Sometimes an employer and employee clash and the relationship ends on a bad note. It happens. Unless you can’t get along with anyone, you should have other supervisors and colleagues who can vouch for you.
Compiling a reference list isn’t complicated—here's how to do it. If you’ve invested the time building genuine relationships, it’s just a matter of asking the most appropriate people from your network if they’d be willing to support you. If they say yes, make it easy for them by providing a copy of the job description and your resume. Don’t forget to follow up with a thank-you, and return the favor if possible, so they will continue to be willing to help you when you need it.