How Bad References Can Kill Your Job Search

Throughout their lives, most people have learned that making and acting on assumptions is bad practice. Making decisions without having enough information doesn’t usually yield good results, yet many people still do it every single day.

Some assumptions are relatively harmless. For example, if you assumed a friend was picking up lunch for you, but then he or she did not, then you may have to run out and get your own lunch. This is harmless – annoying, but harmless. But what happens if you are a job seeker and you assume that some of your previous coworkers or managers will give you a glowing reference, but they do not. Worse yet, you don’t even know about this bad reference.  What if they are providing all sorts of negative information to your ideal potential future employer? This bad assumption could literally cost you a job offer and will continue to do so until you stop and take a good hard look at your reference list.

When was the last time you thought about the people you listed as references and what they truly might say about you? Is it possible that you mistakenly assumed that any or all of those people would give you a good reference but yet they aren’t? How many job offers did you feel you were sure to get but then didn’t? Could there be a correlation?

The HR Side

For the most part, when HR professionals or hiring managers check candidate-provided references, it doesn’t end up having any kind of significant impact on the hiring decision. When they ask candidates for a list of references, candidates will typically provide a list of people who they know will say great things about them. Calling references and hearing great things about job candidates is typical and expected and therefore is used more as a formality to confirm hiring decisions already made.

With that said, imagine how much weight on the hiring decision a bad reference carries when it comes from a person you provided to a potential employer! Bad references from a candidate-provided list is, in many cases, a deal breaker. If there is more than one bad reference, it almost always is a deal breaker.

Surprisingly, bad reference checks from a candidate-provided list happens more often than one would imagine. I would guesstimate that 20% of these references give clear and detailed negative feedback on a candidate. And every time it happens, it’s quite a shock! Imagine seeing that candidates, who we obviously thought very highly of, had no idea that a reference did not see them in a good light.

Choosing A Reference

It is entirely possible that someone agrees to provide you with a good reference and then simply doesn’t do it. However, common sense dictates that you should only utilize people who have high quality character traits so you can avoid that potential conflict. If you get along great with that person but saw them backstab others and act immature and/or unethical, then you should not trust that person with something so important!

When you look at your list of references, you should have no doubt in your mind that the person will give you a great reference. If you look at a name and are thinking to yourself, “I think she will give a good reference”  or “I am pretty sure he will give a good reference”, you need to immediately either toss it aside and use a different one you are sure about, or call the person and ask if they will provide a good reference for you – something you should be doing with all your references anyway!

Are there people on your list that you thought, “oh, I know this person will give me a great reference” and then you wrote their name down without ever actually discussing it with that person? You should always have a conversation with your references about them being a reference so you can be assured that they will be good references and also so they are not caught off guard when they get these calls. While talking with the person you should carefully listen to his or her response. If he or she immediately says with confidence, “sure! I would love to help you out!”, obviously that is a good sign. However, If he/she seems hesitant or says something like “okay, um, well, what do you want me to say?” or “ok, but I am pretty busy so I may not have time to talk to them,” those are bad signs and you should cross that person off your reference list immediately.

When it comes to references, always consider whether or not you fully trust that person. Do not use him or her if you’re in doubt. Don’t put future opportunities in the hands of others who have the power to kill them, along with your personal brand. Always do your due diligence and never make assumptions about what someone might say about you!

Jessica Simko is a seasoned senior level Human Resources professional with over 15 years experience in all facets of Human Resources Management. She is a Career Coach and Consultant specializing in helping all levels of professionals create, build, and sustain a strong career brand. She strives to help connect people to their passions and to leverage their brands in their job search and in their careers. Utilizing the career branding model, she offers job search and career branding articles as well as a variety of coaching services at the Career Branding Guide.  Feel free to connect with her on:

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