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References, Negative

In January, Seth Godin asserted that you are your references. A recent article in ePrairie further bolsters that fact — indicating that it's even more important than previously thought.

Recent research indicates that organizations are increasingly clamping down on employee references, prodding leaders to stick to a simple story of name, rank, and serial number. For the most part, HR departments are doing this for fear of lawsuits; if someone gives a negative reference — or a reference that negatively impacts someone's job prospects — they could be sued.

Huh. It seems silly to ask someone for a reference unless you actually worked closely with them — and had a positive work experience with them. So I don't quite get the concern about negative references. You shouldn't be seeking references you're unsure about. But the article does offer some good advice — and indicates why this should be a concern.

  • What you want (and what your next employer wants) is good and pithy information about what you can do. That's much more likely to come from a long-term colleague or mentor/boss than from the HR department at your last employer.
  • You should take the time to prep your reference givers before you give their names and contact information to prospective employers.
  • Prep each reference giver with specifics about the job, the company and how you're promoting yourself as a fit for this opportunity.

But let's get back to the main point of the piece — that some companies no longer let employees give reference. I think the writer, Liz Ryan, caps that concern well.

This is unfortunate for two reasons: for one thing, companies run the risk of hiring less-than-wonderful employees if they can't get useful references from former employers. For another thing, former employers who might be happy to give you a terrific reference could very well hesitate to do so if they generally shy away from reference giving.

How do you handle asking for — and giving — references? Any interesting reference stories to share?