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How to ensure strong job references

(MoneyWatch) Most companies ask for job references before hiring you, whether it's to be a dog walker or a senior vice president. Some employers don't call these references, some do and some hunt down their own references by using LinkedIn, industry connections, or simply calling the switchboard operator at your former company and asking to speak to the head of your last department.

A bad reference can kill your candidacy; a good one can clinch it. Here are six tips for how to deal with references when a company ask for them.

1. If you're related, it's not a good reference. If you were doing accounting for your mom's dry cleaning shop, that's a real job. Absolutely list it on your resume. But mom? She loves you. She thinks you're special. But do you want the woman who potty-trained you talking to a potential employer? No. You can sometimes get away with this if you have different last names, but don't risk it. 

2. You don't have to list your direct supervisor. If an employer asks for the names of your direct supervisors, of course you have to provide that information (or risk losing out). Otherwise, anyone in authority over you can be a great reference. Like whom? Your internal clients. Your external clients. The director of the neighboring department who you worked with on a big project. Your goal is to find someone who loves your work and who will be a strong reference. A coworker at the same level as you is not a good reference because the business relationship is too equal. However, a positive coworker reference is better than a bad boss reference.

3. Speak to your references before you list them. Just because you got good performance ratings doesn't mean your old boss wants to recommend you for another job. He may have been a bad manager and just said nice things to be nice, but will feel comfortable saying something rotten on the phone. Make sure that the people you list are willing and able to serve as references.

4. Make sure you have the right information for your references. My last three bosses work for different companies than they did when they were my superiors. If I said, "Jane Doe, VP of labor and employment law, company A" and gave her old phone number, they'd never reach her.  Because not only does Jane work for company C now, but company A was bought out by company B, so boy would I look stupid. In the old days, tracking down an old boss would be difficult. Now, it should take you 30 seconds to find on LinkedIn. If the person doesn't have a page, surely you can find someone who knows where he or she is working (You should be maintaining those relationships anyway.)

5. If you know your old boss will say something horrible, speak up in advance. It's not terribly likely that the job recruiter will come back to you and say, "We decided not hire you because Bob said you're an idiot." No, the company just won't offer to hire you. So if they insist they must speak with your direct supervisor, say something along these lines: "Here is his phone number. However, we did not see eye to eye on a lot of issues. If you'd like another viewpoint, here is the name and phone number of Karen. She was the director of the accounting department and I did a lot of work for her as well." Don't hide the number or lie about who your boss was. It's too easy to find out the truth.

6. Most companies won't only confirm employment dates. It's true that many companies have policies of only confirming dates of service and titles (and occasionally pay), but it's an unusual boss that won't break that rule. HR will likely just stick to the requirements, but your boss probably won't. So don't think you're safe because of company policy. Additionally, if your boss has moved on to a new company, she will be even more likely to speak freely. (However, recruiters who punish a candidate because a former boss won't break company rules should rethink their profession.)

Whatever you do, don't think that references don't count. And remember not to burn bridges. If you are anything less than professional in your departure from a job, that is what people will remember. 

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