References Revisited: How to Ensure They Don't Cost You the Job

I've recently received a lot of letters like these from job seekers:

"I've been using the same three people for references since June. One of them didn't return a phone call promptly to a recruiter, and the recruiter had to contact me for additional references. I wondered if my reference had swine flu or was on vacation, but it soon became clear she was sitting on the request. Needless to say, I was a wee bit stunned, not to mention disappointed. Should I come out and ask her if she's sick of yapping recruiters' ears off or just assume the answer is yes and not use her for any future interviews I might finagle?" "


""What do you do if you find yourself leaning on the same references time and again? I've been lucky enough to score some interviews, but that's three times in the last month my reference may have been contacted by an HR dept. Do I need to drum up some new names of people who will vouch for me? Send the ones who've already helped me out a box of chocolates or a set of new steak knives? Help!"

With so many people job hunting for the first time in two, five, even 15 years, there's a fair amount of confusion around staying in your references' good graces -- and ensuring they don't blow an opportunity for you. To set the record straight, I've collected suggestions from several headhunters, hiring managers and seasoned job seekers. "

Give Them a Heads Up

"The biggest faux pas is that people don't ask their contacts to be their references or notify them when they're going to be called," said Megan Slabinski, executive director of The Creative Group, a North American staffing agency.

Yet Slabinski, who's been in the hiring seat for a decade, says this happens all the time.

Kind of shortsighted when you consider that the ex-boss who's on an eight-week trek through the Himalayas and not checking her work phone or e-mail messages won't be much of a reference. Likewise, the former colleague caught off guard when a hiring manager calls to say that you've listed them as a reference may not offer you the wholehearted recommendation you were hoping for.

"Even a subtle lack of enthusiasm on the part of a reference can work against job candidates," Slabinski said. To ensure your references are ready, willing and able, it's important to check in with them each time you give their name to a potential employer, Slabinski advised. It's also important to let them know that your job hunting process may take awhile and may involve multiple calls from employers and recruiters, said Ryan Watson, a recruiter with the Philadelphia office of staffing firm Global Employment Solutions.

Fill Them In on the Job

It's not enough to tell those going to bat for you that a potential employer may be writing or calling. You have to give them some context, too. "I send them the job description, my view on how the interview process has gone up to that point and a current copy of my resume for referral," said Deanna Miller, a marketing professional who's been job hunting since April. You also need to give your references the name of the person who'll be calling them as well as details about the company and why you want the job, Slabinski said.

Then there's the matter of helping your references remember why they loved your work so much. "Get them to talk about their memory of you," said Nick Corcodilos, a headhunter based in Lebanon, N.J. who hosts, an online clearinghouse of information for job seekers.

"The more you help them remember, the more likely they are to use those words in a reference check." Be sure to remind your references of any skills, projects or other highlights you want them to stress and explain how those accomplishments correlate to the position you're interviewing for, Corcodilos said.

If the position calls for managerial experience and you acted as interim department head for six months, with your team completing its chief project under budget and ahead of schedule, by all means tell your reference you'd like them to mention this. "Don't leave them guessing," Corcodilos added. "Help make it easy for them."

Make Sure There Are No Surprises

If you've done all the above and still aren't sure a former manager or colleague will go to bat for you, you probably shouldn't use them as a reference. "You have no idea how many references I check that give the person a really awful reference," said Watson, the Philadelphia recruiter. "Who knows how many opportunities they may have missed out on due to this?"

But it's not just Watson's recruits listing useless references. In a recent survey conducted by The Creative Group, 250 hiring managers from 2,000 of the nation's largest companies dished about reference checks gone bad. Among the unflattering facts references revealed about their former colleagues: They had trouble getting to work on time. They had a tendency to fall asleep at their desk. They detested the industry in which they were applying for work.

One hiring manager polled said a reference he called was so incredulous the candidate had used him as a reference that couldn't stop laughing. Another said she had never heard of the candidate in question.

But let's assume you've been truthful and chosen your references wisely. If you want to know what they plan to tell potential employers about you, experts say you should just ask. Slabinski also offers this suggestion: "Whether or not they get the job, I always encourage people to ask, 'I'm just curious, what did my references say?'" You may not get an answer, or you may get a vague "Nothing but good things," but it's worth a shot, she said.

Don't Wear Out Your Welcome

Having five, six, even eight references in the hopper can help you avoid leaning too heavily on any one contact."If you don't overuse your references they'll be more likely to respond quickly -- another reason to have a big pool of potential reference-givers," said Karen Burns, author of "The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use."

"If a reference is consistently tardy, consider that he or she is simply too busy and don't refer so many requests to them."

Recent grads just entering the job market and caregivers who've been out of the workforce for many years may have to work harder to build up a reference pool. But employers and companies for which you interned aren't the only ones who can make good references.

Other options include professors, industry professionals you know well and organizations for which you've volunteered, said Heather Huhman, founder and president of Come Recommended, an online community that connects internship and entry-level job candidates with employers, all of whom must provide three recommendations to join. At the very least, non-employer references can attest to your character, work ethic and professionalism, said Huhman.

Finally, remember to give thanks -- and not just via text message or e-mail. Instead, Burns recommends a hand-written letter sent by snail mail. Burns' additional suggestions for showing your appreciation: supporting a reference's favorite cause, sending business their way or making helpful introductions to other professionals.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books -- "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,