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Getting a Great Reference
by Toni Seger
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Co-owner of a media/communications firm called ProseWorks(tm) Associates since 1992, Toni Seger has been a professional writer for four decades and since 2004, has produced a public affairs television show for the largest chamber in Maine.

When you’re competing for a job, prospective employers will consider a number of different criteria when assessing whether or not you get hired. In my opinion, the quality of your references can make a big difference. Even with a great interview, your potential new boss will probably want to get another perspective on you before making a decision and that means looking at your references.

Because I think this area is so important, I’d recommend that you don’t take chances with it. I never assume someone I get along with, personally, will necessarily give me a good reference. I always make a point to talk with the person beforehand. I let the person know I would like to use him or her as a reference and then I provide the context in which I’m going to use it. Naturally, I also try to get an idea of what he/she will say. After all, if this person has reservations about my abilities or job performance or personality, I want to try and draw it out. Then, without being defensive or argumentative, I have a chance to allay any reservations I might have. Besides, if I come away from this conversation with any doubt about how I’m going to be described, I don’t have to list the person as a reference, anyway. Before I provide contact information about a reference, I want to hear an unqualified endorsement and an assurance that I will be described in glowing terms .

If you’re considering a reference who is a former employer, I think you may also want to discuss the type of information that will be passed on about you. Job performance is certainly something you can expect to be discussed, but your salary may come up as well and that could effect your future earning capacity where the reference is being used to get a job. It’s possible, for example, that you’ve held another job since you worked for this person where you made a substantially larger sum of money. In that case, you may need to update your reference based on your enhanced earnings. Otherwise, a false impression could be made that creates unanticipated problems for you. You may actually get the job, but find it has a much lower salary than you anticipated.

When you’re talking to a former boss, I’d advise you to be sure you are talking about the same employment dates so you can be confident the information you give will not be contradicted. For instance, If you say you worked somewhere for three years and your former boss says it was two years without checking, you might look like you’re padding your resume unjustifiably. I always try to guard against an offhand and innocent mistake that can end up making me look less than truthful.

If you happen to learn that someone gave you a very bad reference and that caused you to lose a job, you will doubtless feel hurt, but I have to caution you that your options are probably limited. Defamation of character may be an option, especially if you can show loss of income, but only if you can prove that the negative information had no validity or that the person spread a story about you in order to hurt you. Neither is easy because there are lots of grey areas and it can be difficult to find out precisely what was said. If the reference simply gave an opinion upon request, you have no grounds. An opinion is seen as an expression of taste, not a statement of fact.

In general, I’d say it’s relatively easy to prove you worked at a job during a certain period of time, but it’s much harder to prove what your value was. If you learn about a bad reference before a job has been decided, I think you can still succeed by offsetting it with good references. It will take an effort on your part, but three good references can probably make up for one bad one.

If you’re pursuing employment that involves handling or transporting money, your potential employer has a good reason to want to check your credit rating or see if you have ever gotten into serious trouble. In such a case, I would take the opportunity to ask for a copy of my credit report. That way I’ll know if there are any errors in it. If a credit report is going to be relevant to a potential job, it’s probably best to research it beforehand in an effort to catch any mistakes. I wouldn’t want to learn, after I lost a chance at a good job, that the reason was a bad credit report that wasn’t even accurate! If that’s already happened to you, try and see if you can substitute the correct information. If an employer turns you down due to bad credit, they are required to notify you under the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and that gives you the chance to dispute the accuracy of the report.

If you can’t get a good reference from a former employer or you haven’t built a very long employment history, I suggest you consider references from teachers, colleagues on a job or people who have known you personally as long as they aren’t relatives. Perhaps, you’ve done community work or you belong to a non-profit or church group that could recommend you. Is there a class you stood out in or some special after school activity you put a lot of time into?

I find that when some people are asked for a reference, they turn the conversation around and ask you what you want them to talk about. I think that’s a great opportunity and I’m always ready to answer with specifics that relate to the job or type of job I’m seeking. If you’re offered an opening to provide input into a reference letter, by all means take advantage of it.

Finally, if you feel you’ve been genuinely mistreated at some point in this process and want more information, there are reference companies you can pay that will do a background check for you. Visit for an example of a company that will look into reference letters being sent to your prospective employers.

Published: Aug 28,2008 15:26
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