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In job search, good references are key

Job seekers often overlook the importance of choosing and cultivating the right references in their job search.

By Staff writer / February 24, 2011

One bad job reference can kill one's job prospects.

Phil Marden / The Christian Science Monitor

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Mellora Hall quit her part-time job in Springfield, Mo., last year in search of a better life and a better job in Las Cruces, N.M. What she got instead was nine months of unemployment.

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She applied for hundreds of jobs. Despite a master of fine arts degree, she got few interviews and zero offers. The rejections got her thinking: Was one of her references saying bad things about her?

It's a common worry in a sour labor market. Many of today's job seekers have excellent résumés and present themselves well. But the offers don't come, and they search for reasons why. Finding good references – and making sure that they aren't undermining you – are often overlooked but important steps in a job search.

How important? After speaking to applicants' references, companies typically remove an average 1 in 5 applicants from consideration, according to an Office Team survey last summer. The No. 1 area managers wanted to know about? The applicant's past job duties and experience, the survey of more than 1,000 senior managers found.

"The reference is one of those things to help a potential employee to really differentiate themselves," says Robert Hosking, executive director of Office Team, a staffing service specializing in highly skilled administrative professionals and based in Menlo Park, Calif.

The key to finding and keeping good references is communicating with them throughout the job search. For starters, that means calling each previous employer you plan to use for permission to use their name as a reference. But don't stop there.

"Make sure you have had 'the discussion' with them," counsels Mr. Hosking. That means asking if they could share with you what they plan to say about you. "It's almost like conducting a postemployment review," he says. The next step is to let them know when a potential employer might be contacting them. "Keep the person in the loop," says Heidi Allison, managing director for Allison & Taylor Inc., a reference-checking company based in Rochester, Mich. "Think about etiquette."

When you've landed a job, circle back again with a thank-you note to all your references. It's not only polite, it alerts past employers that you're moving on and up in the working world. That way, the boss you had when you were an intern won't be surprised a few years later when you're applying for a far more senior position, says Ms. Allison. Even though she has run her own company for 26 years, she still sends a Christmas card to former bosses – just in case.

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