5 ways references can lose you a job

Without the right people to endorse your skills, work ethic, and experience, you could be jeopardizing your dream job.

5 ways references can lose you a job

Don't let a bad reference keep you from getting the job.

Sometimes the best resume, smartest cover letter, or even the strongest interview skills are not enough to persuade an employer to hire you. To get a job, you also need people who can sing your praises, people who can attest that you’re a star employee. Put simply: You need professional references.

Unfortunately, “references are often an afterthought for job seekers,” says Andrea Kay, a career consultant based in Cincinnati.

To ensure your references present you in the best light, avoid these common mistakes.

Professional reference list mistakes to avoid

  1. Not asking a person for permission to list them as a reference
  2. Asking the wrong people to be a reference
  3. Not preparing your references
  4. Assuming your reference will give you a great review
  5. Forgetting to thank your references

Mistake #1: Listing someone as a reference without asking the person for permission first

Asking if someone will be a reference for you might sound like a basic step, but Kay says you’d be surprised how many job seekers forget to do it.

“A lot of people just don’t ask for permission,” Kay says. “They just assume that the person is happy to do it.” Hence, you’ll want to touch base with references before providing their contact information to a prospective employer. It’s simply common courtesy.

Mistake #2: Asking the wrong people

No doubt your mom thinks you’re a superstar, and your BFF would have your back no matter what, but alas, you can’t use friends and family members as references. After all, you’re looking for people who can speak to not only your personality, but also your career skills and work ethic.

“You want someone who you worked for, someone you worked with, or someone who worked for you,” says Stefanie Wichansky, CEO at Randolph, New Jersey-based management consulting and staffing firm Professional Resource Partners.

Ideally, you wrangle all three for your reference list. “That would give an employer a good picture of how you are as a direct report, as a co-worker, and as a manager,” Wichansky says.

If you’re going to use a previous boss as a reference, though, first check to see whether the person is allowed to talk about your job performance. “A lot of companies have strict policies that only let managers confirm a past employee’s job title and dates of employment,” says Jeff Shane, president at Allison & Taylor, a professional background screening firm based in Rochester, Michigan.

Mistake #3: Not preparing your references

Many hiring managers will let you know in advance when they’re going to contact your references. So, if possible, you should give your references a heads-up to let them know who will be contacting them, and supply them with an updated copy of your resume.

Pro tip: Share the job description with your references, so they can gain a good sense of the position you’re applying for.

Depending on how long it’s been since you held the job, you may have to refresh the person’s memory about specific projects you worked on or results you delivered that can be used as talking points.

Also, consider asking your references to speak to certain skills, such as leadership, reliability, critical thinking, communication, and teamwork. Recent research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that employers care more about these particular soft skills than they do technical abilities like reading comprehension or mathematics.

Mistake #4: Blindly assuming the person will give you a glowing review

Even though you think you were a great employee, your past manager may not feel the same way.

“Countless job seekers have been dismayed by the information that a former supervisor shares about them,” says Shane. “If an employer uncovers a negative reference, you may never hear from the company ever again.”

Therefore, if you’re even the slightest bit unsure of where you stand, ask your references ahead of time what they’re going to say about you. If they don’t plan on flattering you, take them off your references list and move on to the next person.

Mistake #5: Forgetting to send a thank-you letter

Your references are doing you a big favor. “They’re not only investing their time for you, but they’re also putting their own reputation on the line,” Kay says.

Take a few minutes to write them a thank-you email or handwritten letter. It’s a small gesture, but it can go a long way.

“If you want someone to be a good reference, you have to act like a mensch,” Kay says. “There’s no such thing as being too appreciative.”

Done with mistakes? Do this next

The job search doesn't have to trip you up at every turn—but there are a whole lot of turns to contend with. Prevent unnecessary headaches by starting off on the right foot. Meaning, get your resume in shape. Not only will a strong resume impress hiring managers, it'll also show your potential references what you've accomplished so far in your career. Need some help making sure you're giving them something to talk about? Get a free resume evaluation today from the experts at Monster's Resume Writing Service. You'll get detailed feedback in two business days, including a review of your resume's appearance and content, and a prediction of a recruiter's first impression. It's a quick and easy way to avoid the little mistakes that can have a big impact.