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Negative references and what to do about them

You may suspect that one of your professional references is keeping you from getting a job or board offer.

According to one reference checking company, approximately 50 percent of all reference checks they conduct will uncover negative feedback from the reference *. This feels counterintuitive, however, because if you were to ask a colleague or former boss to serve as a reference, why would the recommendation be negative?

Part of the issue is that people’s memories are short and they may not remember the details of the work you completed under their direction. Lack of details, uncertain dates and so forth can leave a negative impression with the corporate recruiter or hiring manager who is conducting the reference check. It is surprising to learn that the references listed can be decades old and it is not reasonable to expect your former mentor from 1989 will remember the excellent work you did for him.

You can prevent this from happening by doing the following things:

  1. Notify your reference in advance and ensure you have his/her permission.
  2. Provide your reference with a copy of your CV, job posting, and application letter.
  3. Ensure that you remind the reference of any specific aspect of your previous work that you would like them to focus on. If you were the lead negotiator for an M&A transaction, for example, remind your reference of that work and the results.
  4. Always speak to your reference directly by phone or in person about the opportunity and remind him/her of the reasons you’re interested in the role and how they can support you.
  5. Ask the reference if they have any concerns or questions about your candidacy.

You can say:

“Mr. Einstein, as you know, I’ve been keenly interested in serving on a board of directors for a long time. I’ve taken the required director training, volunteered on non-profit boards and have mastered the financial training required at the board level. I am passionate about prosthetic devices because of my brother’s accident many years ago. Do you have any concerns about my candidacy for this role? I completely respect your opinion”.

Stop talking and let your reference respond. You may discover information that could impact how you negotiate the offer. If you follow these steps, you will reduce the chances of receiving a negative reference.

*According to the company, Allison & Taylor.

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