You've sent your job application and the prospective employer called to say, "Keep your schedule open the next week so we can fly you in for an interview."
Then ... nothing. No call, no interview, no job. When you follow up later, the employer tells you they hired from within or decided to leave the position open for budgetary reasons.
In truth, you might have been done in by one of your references, says Jeff Shane, executive vice president for Allison & Taylor in Rochester, Mich.
Allison & Taylor is in the business of checking references for job applicants, particularly those whose hunt keeps hitting a dead end. Mr. Shane said much of their business comes from applicants like the one described above -- people with excellent credentials who get an initial, warm reception from the prospective employer, only to have their hopes land in the discard pile.
To find out if it's a reference problem, Allison & Taylor will contact the prospective employer through a third-party reference checking organization and ask about the employee. The company assumes it's a hiring organization and will provide a candid evaluation.
After 29 years in the business, Mr. Shane said that about half the time, references "come back with some form of negativity" -- even those references who have handed the employee a glowing recommendation letter.
"We call that reference '180 degrees' -- they have written a laudatory recommendation, but verbally tell a third party that they would never hire them. The severity of some of the comments is vicious."
At this point, a job candidate's options may be limited.
Mr. Shane said you can try to get documentation proving what a reference said, then have an attorney send them a cease-and-desist letter (Allison & Taylor, www.allisontaylor.com, offers this service for $395). A better option is to avoid getting in that situation.
Among the tips Mr. Shane offers to make sure your references work for you and not against you:
• Draw up a list of prospective references, then narrow the list to the five who have seen your work up close. He suggests five names because reference checks are often done late in the hiring process and you want to make sure they can reach someone.
• If you've been out of work for a while, stay in touch with former employers so the reference request doesn't leave them trying to remember who you are.
• When you list references, provide more than just a name and contact information. Describe your work relationship with them in detail. It will save your prospective new employer time and lets you put your experience and talents in the best light.
• Contact each reference ahead of time and ask if you can list them as a reference, sharing information about the job you're applying for. Try to make sure they will say good things about you.
• If listing your current employer as a reference is sensitive -- either because you don't want them to know you're applying elsewhere or you're not sure what they will say -- it is generally acceptable to ask the prospective employer to hold off contacting them until you have a job offer.
That said, you can't roadblock critical references by simply not listing them, Mr. Shane cautions. "If you are asked for a list of references and it does not include the most recent one or two employers, you may have some explaining to do."
Steve Twedt: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1963.