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How to Handle Reference Problems in Job Applications

References are deal breakers in your job search if something goes wrong and you fail to respond to bad news with effective repair moves. References can also hang you out to dry when you’re making a secret search and are exposed by the gathering of recommendations. Here’s what to do when you get bad news.

How to fight back in reference trouble spots

When you’re walloped with an unacceptable reference that seems sure to sink your search, never roll over and play dead. Get up off the mat and start punching, whether the reference-based turndown isn’t your fault or whether you deserve the trashing.

Strategy when you’re blameless

If you’re ever victimized by untrue words that threaten your employment future, fight back with the following script suggested by author and media celebrity Tony Beshara, a top-flight placement and recruiting professional in Dallas (tonybeshara.com).

In Beshara’s scenario, personable office clerk Katie and jealous office supervisor Jenny have a toxic workplace history because Jenny thinks the company’s owner shows favoritism toward Katie. Jenny fires Katie and lies to prospective employers in reference checks, telling them that Katie didn’t do her job and wasn’t a good employee. Katie fails to make a new work connection but eventually discovers that Jenny is the villain.

Here’s how Beshara suggests that Katie solve her problem:

Speaking in a calm, nonthreatening tone, Katie should call Jenny and say nicely but firmly that the negative reference is closing employment doors and must stop.
If Jenny is unresponsive, won’t come to the phone, or won’t return a voicemail — which is very likely — Katie should write a letter to Jenny with the same message and send a copy to the owner of the company. Katie need not threaten defamation litigation in her letter because the owner, using common sense, will figure out the company’s potential risk.
Additionally, Katie should call the owner, review the situation, and say that although she doesn’t want to cause problems, she does want to be able to go to work and support herself. Katie then can ask the owner to be the one to provide future references for her, since he has firsthand knowledge of her work and she’s only asking that he tell the truth.

Strategy when you’re at fault

If you were invited to depart for cause, move immediately to your best damage-control mode. Even if you snagged a basic reference letter on your way out the door, try to arrange a meeting with your previous manager to neutralize your relationship and improve the reference you’ll likely receive when potential employers begin inquiring about you.

Because of the uptick in wrongful termination lawsuits, most employers are willing to discuss giving a more positive reference if the booted employee agrees not to pursue litigation.

Ask your old boss if you can meet to reach an agreement on how the company will respond to future reference requests. Detail the great lessons that you’ve learned from your termination, and thank your ex-boss for helping you to see the light.

Then say, “I’m worried about getting work in the future. Can we come up with something so that this learning experience doesn’t stand in my way?” If you get a cold shoulder, be gracious, smile, and thank your ex-boss for considering your request. This sincere effort on your part may prove to be surprisingly helpful on the reference front.

Can’t you just forget to mention your former direct boss, who may well blow the whistle on you? No. That omission is a red flag for employers, signaling that something’s off base with your performance.

A classic tactic for this dilemma is to crowd out a bad reference with multiple good references. Another tactic: Concentrate your job search on small firms that may not check references or that may be more inclined to take a chance on someone.

How to tiptoe under the radar screen in a job search

A stealth job search has always been tricky to pull off without risk. If you give your boss as a reference at your current company, your secrecy jig’s up and you may find that pink is the color of your next pay envelope.

Worse, in this age of digital danger, that risk has shot up to red alert.

For example, do you sync your personal and work mail accounts on your smartphone? Are the messages archived? Are sent messages accessible? How far back do they go? Do you have apps installed that provide direct access to your social networking accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn?

Browse for Google’s privacy policy and understand what user data may be spread from one Google product to another, including Gmail. Similarly, revisit privacy policies for social media you use.

Consider four suggestions to rack up references while keeping your job search under wraps:

  • Use the names of former supervisors at other companies, preferably individuals you’ve kept in touch with and tipped off in advance that you’re on the move.

  • Call on reliable contacts you’ve made at professional organizations.

  • Never ask for praise from coworkers or current vendors. They may innocently let it slip to your supervisor that you’ve already mentally left your job, or even purposely curry favor with your current management by whispering in the boss’s ear.

  • Emphasize to prospective employers that your job search is confidential. When an offer is near, say that, upon receiving a signed offer letter, you’ll be pleased to have the prospective employer check with your current management and that, if you don’t stack up as advertised, you understand that the job offer is null and void.

Anticipate who you’ll need as references, and clue them in on your undercover search as your faith in their discretion allows.

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