The subject of references keeps cropping up, so I think it’s time to beat this drum again. If you haven’t checked recently to see what kind of shape your references are in, you might want to do it soon–for several reasons. For one thing, one or more of them might no longer give you the stellar recommendation you once expected. For another, if you haven’t been in touch in a while, one or more might have encountered personal or professional challenges that make them no longer quite such a good resource as they’ve been in the past.
Why You Should Check Your Professional References
First, let’s clarify one point about references that people sometimes overlook. The reason I use the phrase “professional references” is that most employers won’t waste much, if any, time, checking personal or “character” references. (I can think of only a few exceptions, such as when you’re applying for a position that requires a security clearance.) Also, when prospective employers are interested enough in you to ask for your references, they don’t necessarily limit themselves to those you provide to them. They can, and often do, contact previous employers and other sources, including people in your LinkedIn network.
Now to the point about why you should check your professional references occasionally. In a recent article by Michelle Rafter, “References: Don’t Assume an Old Boss Still Loves You,” the writer noted that you should not assume things are fine without bothering to check. As she commented, “When it comes to references, don’t assume–it could come back to bite you….Don’t take for granted that a previous employer will verify your job title and employment dates and leave it at that, or that if you left under less-than-ideal circumstances your old boss will keep quiet about it….” Rafter interviewed Jeff Shane, the owner of a reference checking company, and he indicated that in 20 years or so, his company has found that around 50% of the time, they uncover some kind of negative comment.
How to Check Professional References
You can do some discreet calling yourself or, which might be better, ask a trusted friend to do it for you, to see if he/she can get an idea of what’s being said. Under some circumstances, you might want to hire a professional reference checking service to explore the kinds of information your selected references and former employers are providing. As I might have mentioned before, the one I’m familiar with is Allison & Taylor, but I’m sure there are many out there–just make sure they’re reputable before you pay them to do your reference checking.
How Many References Should You Have?
This doesn’t relate directly to checking your references, but it’s another question that often comes up. Typically, I’ve recommended having a minimum of 3 and up to 5 references; however, the article raised a point that I hadn’t considered, and it’s a good one. You might not want to provide the same references for each position you pursue. Rafter quotes Shane as stating, “Some might be able to talk more effectively to your skill set more than others. So it could be a supervisor or second-level supervisor or close associate.” That being said, you’ll probably want to identify more than 5 professional references to draw from, so you have more choice and also don’t over-work the same ones by using them every time.
Conducting a confidential job search means doing it without letting your current employer know. In other words, you need to protect the confidentiality of your search until you have accepted a formal offer from an employer and are ready to give notice at your present company. However, numerous mistakes can trip up an incautious job seeker. Pitfalls certainly include some outside your control, but you can greatly improve the chances of avoiding disaster by paying close attention to the others.
Problems to Avoid in Your Confidential Job Search
- “Walls have ears!” Sound carries in open cubicle arrangements, so you can’t assume it’s safe to talk normally, even if no one is actually in the cubicles closest to you. Even a private office isn’t the complete answer, because closing your door without a reason that people will consider normal can raise a red flag in their minds.
- Posting your resume online or distributing it through an outside service can be problematic. Some job boards will allow you to remove or replace your personal information, and if you’re using a distribution service, you may be able to indicate that your current employer is not to receive the resume. However, most online boards and other services will not guarantee confidentiality, so you need to use them with caution.
- Discussion of your plans with co-workers, even if they’re also looking, carries a big risk. They might get upset with you over something and let your boss know what you’re up to or they might just be unable to maintain a discreet silence about your confidential activity, no matter how much you trust them. One incautious remark might be all it takes.
- Sending or receiving messages related to your job search while at work should be avoided if at all possible. Your voice mail and email are accessible to your employer, and they don’t have to ask your permission. Also, even if, for example, you erase your email messages as soon as you read them, technical support people can retrieve them. People can be—and have been—fired for this type of activity. It’s more than simply a question of being caught, of course. Ethical issues arise in connection with it.
- Ethical considerations also come up if you’re using company resources of any kind to help find your next job—even if you confine your activity to breaks and lunch. Not only can your current employer penalize you if they find out, but also prospective employers may wonder about your ethics if you’re conducting your search using employer resources. One valid exception is when your employer knows you’re looking and has authorized the use.
Bonus Confidential Job Search Tip
And here’s one more problem and related tip: Identifying people to use for professional references in a confidential job search can present numerous challenges. This is especially true, for instance, if you’ve been with one company for years. Asking people who are still there is a definite recipe for disaster. One possible solution is to maintain contact with people who have left the company that you believe would provide good references. That way you have some viable possibilities without rocking the boat at your current employer.
How Can You Safely Navigate the Minefield of a Confidential Job Search?
Start by identifying all the resources you can legitimately use that don’t involve your employer’s time or money. Then take a careful look at the people who need to know all (or at least part) of your plans, including family members and potential references, and make sure they understand the need for discretion. While 100% confidentiality may be unattainable, these steps can go a long way toward enabling you to conduct the search successfully.