Bosses: Even if You Can Say Something Nice, Don't

Take heed, job hunters: Two recent high court rulings have made the ordeal of finding work even more grueling.

The rulings inadvertently make employers who offer detailed job references vulnerable to lawsuits. They reinforce the growing tendency among employers to write references that list only name, title, and tenure. Such bare-bones reports can hobble a job search, experts say.

"There is a growing trend in which most human-resource people don't want to take the chance of some manager out there telling the whole truth and putting the company at risk," says John Challenger, an expert at Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement firm.

"The whole idea of references, which has been tried and true for centuries, has pretty much disappeared," says Steven Worth, executive director of the Association of Outplacement Consulting Firms International, Washington.

Unable to secure references, job applicants must often submit to intrusive background checks and psychological testing by prospective employers. The vetting comes on top of some already bewildering trends for job hunters, namely the waning of both lifetime employment and the promise of full benefits, according to outplacement experts.

Job hunters can make headway despite the personnel managers' obstacles by following several dos and don'ts for securing potent references (see tips, right). The job reference is one of the three legs of a successful job quest; the resume and interview are the others, career advisers say.

The most recent blow against the reference came from the nation's most powerful court. The US Supreme Court decided Tuesday that companies may be sued by former employees who suffered retaliation - such as a poor job reference - for accusing the companies of discrimination.

And the California Supreme Court ruled late last month that an employer is liable for providing a positive reference that fails to mention traits that might make a job candidate a physical risk to workmates.

"It's a bind for companies - they can be sued for saying something good as well as for saying something bad," says Rudy Dew at the outplacement firm Rudolph Dew & Associates in Torrance, Calif. Consequently, companies are increasingly choosing to say little at all. Mr. Dew says, "To err on the side of caution will be a virtue for companies for years to come."

The demise of the traditional job reference also frustrates job-search advisers. The information in detailed references often enables advisers to help their clients face up to the reason they lost their job. The reason is often vital to finding new employment and improving future work performance, Mr. Worth says.

Packing for the Job-Search Trail? Skip the Boss


* Consider listing as references a superior, peer, and subordinate. Companies today like to canvas co-workers at various levels to gauge your abilities in leadership, teamwork, and in dealing with workplace hierarchy.

* Try to closely match the personality and expertise of the reference with those of the potential employer.

* Line up references outside work: a former teacher or people at church or a volunteer group.

* References are key contacts for your career, so keep networking even if you don't plan to quit your current job.

* Remember that unless you are totally incompetent, there is probably someone at your former workplace who will say some helpful words on your behalf.

* Get people's approval and send them a copy of your resume before offering their names as references. Otherwise, the references might be unprepared or refuse to make any comment at all.


* Necessarily cite your boss as a reference if you've been laid off. The boss, while not criticizing you, might note that some of your peers did not lose jobs. List a peer or subordinate instead.

* Line up someone who might give you a "good, but" reference, in which the reference offers praise but undercuts the kind words with caveats. Such two-edged references can be devastating.

* Rely just on written references. Many prospective employers suspect such letters are forgeries.

* Wear out the good will of references. Rally them only when a prospective employer is seriously considering you.

* Burn bridges. If you are fired or laid off, don't tell off your boss. A potential employer may seek your old boss as a reference.

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