FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: Why do so many companies request personal references on job applications (especially online) even before setting up an interview? They usually ask for contact information for teachers, relatives, and acquaintances, as well as bosses and coworkers, both current and former.
I'm really not comfortable with this, for several reasons. First, I'm in my mid-40s and have been out of college a long time, so giving professors as references isn't practical. Second, I don't like to provide information on family and friends because it's too personal. As for work-related references, most of my previous colleagues and supervisors have retired or moved on, and I've lost touch with them. And I don't want anyone at my current company to know I'm job hunting, so they're out too. So my question is, can I just decline to give references? Employers usually don't take the time to check them anyway, do they? — Stumped in San Francisco
Dear Stumped: Well, of course you can decline to give references -- but don't be surprised if that brings any further contact with a prospective employer to a screeching halt. "Companies certainly do check references," says Jeff Shane, executive vice president of reference-checking firm Allison & Taylor. "Especially in this job market, where there are often many qualified candidates competing for each opening, saying 'no' to this request is rolling the dice."
Personal references are relatively unimportant, he adds, since kind words from your friends "generally don't carry much weight anyway. What is critical, however, is strong professional recommendations, particularly from former bosses." Refusing to let hiring managers contact them, Shane says, is "a red flag" -- in large part because it suggests you have something to hide -- and could well cost you the job before you've even been interviewed for it.
So what should you do now? First, try to track down at least two or three of the people who were familiar with your work in the past and with whom you've since lost touch. Ideally, these would be people to whom you reported, but erstwhile peers and others (satisfied clients, for example) will do in a pinch. Google them, look them up on LinkedIn, or see if professional associations or mutual acquaintances have any information on how to reach them.
It's nice of you not to want to bother former bosses who have retired, but if you thank them profusely for understanding the importance of your request, you'll probably find your misgivings are misplaced. Managers who have done any hiring at all are well aware of how much references matter, so they're unlikely to resent your asking. If you want to keep your intrusion on their time to a minimum, you can always write your own letter of recommendation and ask them to sign it.
All this detective work and diplomacy is worth the effort, says Shane, because "if an employer is really interested in you and you don't provide references, they may go to Plan B." That's where the hiring manager or a human resources person calls the HR department at a company where you used to work and fishes around for someone who remembers you and who is willing to chat about what your work was like.
The trouble with that, of course, is that the person they stumble across could turn out to be an old nemesis who (even if company policy officially forbids it) will be only too happy to trash you -- and then you'll really wish you had taken the time to locate a few of your fans.
In this as in so much else, a bit of advance planning can avert a huge hassle later on. "The trick is not to lose touch with potential references in the first place," says Shane.
When you leave a job where you've worked well with your boss, or if a boss who likes your work is moving on, make it a point to hold on to his or her contact information. Then call or email every now and then, just to say hello and stay current with what he or she is up to lately.
"Send a card at the holidays, maybe even meet for coffee once in a while," Shane suggests. "This way, when there is a specific job you want, and you'd like to give this person as a reference, you can coach them a little bit on what you'd like them to say to a prospective employer, because you're not calling out of a clear blue sky."
Keeping in touch is smart for one other reason: Since former bosses often have a way of moving onward and upward to bigger and better things, they sometimes turn out to be future bosses, too.
Talkback: Do you find it difficult to give references when employers ask? Have you ever been unpleasantly surprised by what a reference said about you? Leave a comment below.
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In these days of open plan offices, casual dress and blurring boundaries between home and work, it can be confusing to figure out whether your boss is behaving inappropriately. But if your boss's comments or actions make you feel consistently uncomfortable, then there's a good chance that she or he is stepping over the line of professionalism into inappropriate behavior.
If that's the case, you should initiate a conversation with your boss, recommends Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Allison & Taylor, a reference and background checking firm in Rochester, Mich. Be respectful, open, honest, non-threatening and professional. Also be clear that you want the behavior to stop. If your boss won't listen, consider making an appeal to human resources.
But before you initiate a conversation, Shane suggests considering the following six scenarios that he and his colleagues at Allison & Taylor believe constitute a line between professionalism and unacceptable behavior. If your boss has done one or more of these things with regularity, then it's time to speak up.
1. Your boss makes references to your salary in front of other staff
The Allison & Taylor consultants say this is private and confidential information, and other employees don't need to know what you're being paid. Whether the boss is saying, "I don't pay you enough," or "I pay you too much," this kind of comment can lead to resentment among colleagues.
2. Your boss reprimands you in front of other employees
This is a form of bullying, which is never acceptable or appropriate. While you may have made a mistake or error that deserves discussion, a good boss will handle this in private.
3. Your boss has unreasonable expectations
This one is tricky, as it may be difficult to determine whether the boss's expectations are unfair. The bottom line is that managers need to communicate their expectations for work performance clearly, they should assist employees when needed, and set reasonable deadlines for projects.
4. Your boss shares too many personal details
You're an employee, not a therapist. Your boss shouldn't share problems or details of their personal life, even if they consider you a friend. If you find the conversation regularly veers in this direction, be very brief in your responses and then change the subject back to business. Remember this goes both ways. Don't bring your own problems or your personal life to the office.
5. Your boss makes inappropriate references
Any comment from your boss that makes you squirm, wince or blush is probably one that shouldn't have been made. This includes jokes and emails, or comments about your physical appearance. Also, any type of implication that the boss is interested in a relationship of a personal nature, even if it's not something you're opposed to, is completely inappropriate. It could also be a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen.
6. Your boss implies that sex, race, age or religion is a factor in work performance
None of these things have anything to do with your ability to do the job, and the suggestion that it might is not only unfair, it's discriminatory.
Ever wonder what people say about you behind your back? Or better yet, what references say when you're applying for a new job? Allison & Taylor is growing its business by revealing that sort of information.
The Rochester-based firm checks the references for corporations and individuals. The 28-year-old company has watched its bottom line grow by 25 percent in the last year, allowing it to add a handful of people to its team, which now stands at just under 20 people.
Allison & Taylor regularly watches its business grow in bad times. For example, more people will utilize its services in a down economy to make sure they can do everything in their power to land that next job. That growth has continued as the economy rebounds, mainly from people on the lookout for their next job.
"Our business continues to grow even in the good times," says Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Allison & Taylor. "A lot of people want to switch jobs and are afraid of what a current employer might say."
Allison & Taylor is also working on expanding its service offerings. The business is not only conducting reference checks but its also giving customers options to take care of bad references. For instance, customers who uncover a bad reference can have a cease-and-desist letter sent and other legal action taken on their behalf.
Source: Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Allison & Taylor
Your references: are they really that important in the hiring process? In a word - absolutely. Unfortunately, professional references are perhaps the most overlooked and underutilized tool in most people’s employment arsenal.
If you’re not using your references to your best advantage, you may be making an inadvertent error in your search for new employment. An excellent resume may get your foot in the door for an interview, but it’s your references that will likely “seal the deal” and get you the actual job offer.
So ask yourself: Will the list of job references I have created ensure that stellar new job offer?
The professional reference-checking firm of Allison & Taylor offers these five tips on how to create a compelling reference list:
1. First, think about your list content. Will you always use the same references? Or does employment diversity require that you create more than one set, each tailored to your specific expertise in that field?
2. Who’s to say you can’t use a reference from your not-so-recent past? If it’s relevant - and the reference is willing - go all the way back to college if appropriate. In fact, a professor may make an excellent reference if their input is germane to the job you’re applying for.
3. Are your references really striving to “sell you” to employers? Are you offering up only the input of the HR department? They will generally give a canned “dates and title” response, which is not what potential employers really seek. Try to provide references that can actually speak to your abilities.
Better still, ensure you’re aware of what your reference will truly say about you by contacting a professional reference checking organization.
4. Is it always necessary to use a supervisor? Certainly not. Of course, someone who has seen your day-to-day performance is best - but don’t close off your options by assuming that person has to be your direct supervisor. You can certainly go above them - perhaps your supervisor’s boss can provide a more accurate (and flattering) reference. Then again, who reported to you? It’s often the people who work foryou that know you best.
5. What’s the correct format for references? Always provide the pertinent contact details. There’s nothing more frustrating for an employer than trying to contact references with incorrect or outdated information. If they have to hunt down your references, you’re much more likely to wind up in the discard pile - wrong information projects (your) lack of attention to detail.
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References should include company name, reference title, name, email, mailing address and phone. Also, include a quick blurb regarding your relationship to the reference. Once you’ve created a great list of references, stay in their good graces. Always follow the “Golden Rules of Job Reference Etiquette”:
1. Call your former bosses and ask them if they are willing to provide favorable job references on your behalf. As an additional courtesy, offer them an update on your career
2. Let your references know each and every time you give out their contact information and thank them for their efforts.
3. Keep your positive references informed of your career and educational progress. They will be more inclined to see you in a stronger light as you progress.
4. Note that spending time communicating with your prospective employer takes valuable time from your references' workdays. If you plan to use these positive references over the years, you need to give something back. For instance, each time your reference supports you with a new prospective employer, send them a personal thank-you letter or (at a minimum) an email. Better still, send a thank-you note with a gift card for Starbucks, or offer to take your former boss to lunch/dinner.
5. If you win the new position, call or email your former boss and thank them again for their support. Also, let them know your new contact information.
Present your references in the best light and then treat them like the valuable commodities they are. They will truly be invaluable assets in your search for that new job.
It's never entirely easy for an IT professional to leave a job. Even under the best of circumstances, feelings of anger and resentment can bubble to the surface, negatively impacting a job seeker's ability to later land a positive reference--and future employment.
"It's an employer's market," warned Jeff Shane, an executive VP at Allison & Taylor, a professional reference checking and employment verification company. "Companies can afford to be picky because they now have more than one excellent candidate for most positions. As a result, anything that appears as a negative, like a poor reference, can be a show-stopper for an IT professional."
Here are 5 things every techie needs to know about landing an excellent reference from a previous employer.
1. References for IT pros are among the most likely to be critical. Because millions of dollars tend to ride on a single software implementation or hardware installation, IT professionals' references tend to be more brutally honest, and often lean to the negative side, according to Shane. "IT professionals’ references tend to be a little more animated and consequential for IT people because of the magnitude of any mistakes. They need to be aware of that."
[ The skills you've developed working in IT can pave the way to a career in a non-tech field. See Leaving IT: 4 Job Options For Frustrated Techies. ]
2. Part ways amicably with senior-level executives, including the CIO. While human resources professionals are trained to be diplomatic when providing references, that's not always the case for supervisors. Poor past performance or an ongoing disagreement may result in a critical reference. "IT professionals need to be concerned about their former supervisor and their second-level supervisor when seeking a reference," warns Shane. Not just HR.
3. Don't assume anything. "Many people assume that a given reference would have their back and wouldn't offer any negative input," said Shane. Surprisingly, Shane said of the 1,000s of references Allison & Taylor sifts through a year, "about half of them come back with some form of negativity. In theory, none of them should. But if you're a job seeker, never ever assume that you're getting a neutral or favorable reference."
So how do you know if you're getting a bad reference from a once-supportive employer? If the trail keeps going "stone cold" with every job application, Shane said it could be "a tip-off that a reference did not pan out."
4. Look beyond job performance. A botched ERP deployment or lousy-looking website design can easily cost an IT professional his or her job. But a personality conflict can just as easily tarnish an otherwise promising reference. "An employer may think the IT employee has not met expectations and has let down the organization and there may be grounds for that," says Shane. "But sometimes the personal chemistry isn’t what it needs to be either."
In fact, Shane estimates that a personality clash accounts for about 25 percent of all bad references. So if you and a colleague never got along, try not to count on him or her for a reference, even if it was a job well done.
5. You can ask directly for a good reference. Many IT professionals leave a job simply crossing their fingers about landing a good reference. But you don't have to leave things to chance. "When you’re parting company from a previous employer, sit down with the key people who are going to be references such as a CIO or HR folks," says Shane. "Ask them if you can hope for a favorable reference and even coach them on the skill sets you’d appreciate they focus on when a prospective employer calls."
If an exit interview isn’t possible, touch base with your former employer within a month or so of your departure and try arranging a post-employment discussion to go over your career history with the company, Shane advises.
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Cindy Waxer is a Toronto-based freelance writer and content strategist who covers small business, technology, finance, and careers for publications including Technology Review, The Economist, TIME, Fortune Small Business, and CNNMoney.com.
DETROIT - Regardless of circumstance, job separation requires a little finesse, on both the part of the employee and the employer. Things are a bit easier and more in your control if you are leaving a job of your own volition, so make an effort to ensure the separation occurs on the best possible terms. The employment experts at Allison & Taylor recommend that you give proper notice, tie up loose ends, and depart with an employer that appreciates your efforts and is sorry to see you go.
If, on the other hand, your employment separation is due to a layoff or downsizing the employer often draws up a “separation agreement” which specifies the terms of your termination and severance package. These agreements are generally designed to protect the employer (so read the fine print carefully!) but can also serve as a safeguard to the employee when it includes language on how the employer will react to a request from a potential employer for reference information.
In either scenario, negotiating how your former employer will respond to a reference request is of critical importance to your future employment. Take the time to discuss with them exactly what information they will, and will not provide to prospective employers- before you leave the company- and get it in writing. (Need specific legal advice and direction here? Allison & Taylor can arrange for an attorney to write a custom clause for your particular situation.)
Following are some tips on what to request from your employer when it comes to providing references:
2. Status of eligibility for rehire. “Is he/she eligible for rehire?” is a very commonly asked question, and also one that can be tricky for former employers. Some employers have a policy against providing rehirability status. Others have a “no rehire, regardless of circumstance” policy. It’s best for such employers to specifically say, “Our company policy doesn’t allow me to comment on anyone’s rehire status.” or “Unfortunately, our company has a no re-hire policy.” These statements tell a potential employer it’s not a personal issue.
3. A positive evaluation of strengths and weaknesses. Let’s be honest, no one is perfect. The best thing to do here is speak honestly with your reference about what they see as your strong and weak points. This allows you to come to an agreement about how to address this type of inquiry- and even weaknesses can be commented upon in a positive manner. “What Bob lacks in experience, he sure makes up for in ingenuity!”
4. Their view of your ethics and integrity. Hopefully, these issues will not be in question, but it’s still an area that needs to be addressed with your (almost former) employer. What are their impressions of you in this area? If they are favorable, put together some wording that reflects this. If not, your best course is to request that they don’t comment on it. No negative sound bites. (See some of the unbelievable things former employers have said here.)
5. Reliability. This is a critical question for many employers. They want to know that you will show up to work, that you will complete projects on time, and that you can be relied upon to do the job for which you were hired. Your former employer cannot answer this one too emphatically, so make sure they understand it’s important to you that they answer this in a positive way. When a potential employer asks “Is Susie reliable?” the proper response should be “Absolutely!” not “Oh, yeah, sure.”
Former employers should also be counseled to provide reference information on a timely basis, as their failure to respond (or to return messages about your employment) could be construed as a “negative” by a prospective new employer. Also, your former references should adopt an open and courteous tone when responding to reference inquiries.
The best reference will likely be one where you know exactly what the person will say about you, so be sure to negotiate your reference before you list the information on your application or resume. Taking the time to create a mutually acceptable reference may make a huge difference in your ability to get future employment.