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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.

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Bosses aren't the only people to consider for your reference list. Think about other managers or co-workers who can provide insight into how you work on a team or complete a project. If you're a senior manager, is there an administrative assistant who can speak to how you manage others? Hosking also suggests including someone at a club or volunteer group who can reveal a different side of you.

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Don't forget the human-resources manager. If nothing else, you can go over things such as dates of employment and positions held, details that sometimes can prove crucial.

For example: One Allison & Taylor client was accused of lying on his résumé because he'd gotten the dates wrong on when he worked at a particular company, Allison says. Another client was knocked out of consideration when human resources at his longtime place of employ said he'd never worked there. "Twenty-some years and they didn't have him in the database," she says.

Then there are the occasions when job seekers are victims of a bad reference. Time and again, they have a great interview and then get dropped like a stone. That's typically when many job seekers turn to a reference-checking service to find out what's going on. The service calls up references and asks about the job seeker as any potential employer would, then it sends the job seeker the findings.

About half the time, there's a bad reference, Allison says. "You can't believe what they say!"

Although in many states employers can be held liable for saying something negative about a former employee that they can't back up, managers are often quite open – and negative – about performance. "One guy gave his mother as a reference, and she had bad things to say," Allison recalls.

Sometimes, those comments reflect facts – such as the firing of an employee – that employers could be sued for if they didn't reveal it during a job-reference check. Other times, however, the comments are prompted by rivalries or jealousies that unfairly taint a reputation.

During one Allison & Taylor reference check, a former girlfriend still working at the job seeker's old company called him dyslexic. Some 20 times a month, the company comes across really bad references who say the employee was embezzling, stealing, or committing other nefarious deeds. When those charges are untrue, the company typically sends the reference a cease-and-desist order, which usually takes care of the problem, Allison says.

Are such services worth it? Allison & Taylor charges $79 for each reference check ($99 for executive-level references). Other firms charge less. "It would probably be a big waste of money if [employees] are confident of the way they left their employer," says Jim Evans, president of JK Evans & Associates, a human-resource consulting firm for employers based in Zanesville, Ohio. "If you left on good terms, you shouldn't have a thing to worry about."

Ms. Hall couldn't afford the service on her own, but agreed to a complimentary reference check through Allison & Taylor as a test case for this Monitor story. In her case, all four of her references gave glowing reports. As it turned out, none of them had been contacted by the companies where Hall had applied.

Then, early in January, a government program helping single mothers transition off of government aid hired her, doubling her previous income. Only after hiring Hall did her boss call her references.


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