Job Hunters Beware: Check Your References

By Will McBride

I am a smart, competent, hard-working engineer, and I’ve been out of work for just over two years. Writing this review is in part a confession, and in part an opportunity for me to take my paranoia and fear about the employment process by the neck and hold them up in the bright light of day. Yep, they are just as ugly out here as they are in my Anxiety Closet. I would like to think that I have had terrible luck, or that each of the jobs I’ve applied for haven’t been quite the right fit for me. Maybe another person was perfect for the job, and I was only very good. The worst part of not getting a job is not really knowing why I didn’t get the job. Much of the time I simply never hear back from the company, or I am told I’m overqualified. I think of myself as a great value when my skills and education exceed what is required to merely do a job. I think to myself, “I could rock that job.” Qualifications: Check. Interview: Check.  Imminent Job Offer: Che-wha? So I’ve got no offer in one hand, and no idea why in the other. I have jack. How do I improve, optimize, and ensure that next time I get the offer letter? I mean really! I’m an engineer and the universe is a rational place.

Enter Allison & Taylor, a Michigan based company that for a fee ($79 per reference for teachers/professionals and $99 per reference for executives) promise to dispel my fears by letting me know what my references will say to a potential employer, and to do it in as little as two weeks, or less if I pay to rush it. I find my lack of success at finding a job inexplicable, and the inexplicable can turn into the mystical (gypsy curse?!), which can in turn drift into paranoia. Maybe the people I am trusting to provide me with a strong reference secretly hate me, or just think my protracted unemployment is cause for concern.  I don’t know if my references have cost me a job … but I’m intrigued, and I really need answers.

The reference check is one of the last things that HR will do after you have already been short-listed for the job. Having a tepid recommendation would eliminate you at this point, and you’d never know why. Allison & Taylor can check your references out for you to make sure they’re not tepid. Their process is designed to mimic the way Human Resources professionals perform the same task, which presumably prevents your references from finding out that you’re checking up on them.

Signing up for the process is very straightforward and involves filling out a web-based form describing the job you are seeking, the relationship you have to the person giving you the reference, and their contact information. I entered five professional references for the sake of this review — four people who I’ve worked with and used as references before and who I was confident would give me positive reviews, and a fifth person who I was sure would give me a less-positive review as a control of sorts, and because I was very curious to see what he’d say. Truth be told, I hoping it would inject a little drama into this article. I got what I was hoping for…

After having made contact with your references, A&T produces a very detailed log of the process of contacting your reference, as well as the reference itself, including quotes from the conversation they had about you. I didn’t give my recommenders any warning that they would be contacted, and two of my four references got in touch with me to confirm it was legitimate and to get my input on how to provide me with the best reference possible (a truly great reference will tailor their recommendation of you to suit each position) so I feigned ignorance and thanked them for getting in touch with me.

So, before I had even gotten the reports from A&T I knew that two of my references would contact me when they are contacted by a prospective employer. Upon getting all five reports I learned that my control never returned any of A&T’s calls and avoided contact discretely and effectively. A&T will desist in exactly the same way that corporate HR will. They give up if they cannot make contact with your reference, and if one of your references is difficult to reach or communicate with you should substitute another easier to contact person as your advocate.

Which brings me to the four references I have used for the last couple of years. Three of my usual references gave me very strong references with positive and specific information about my work performance. The last of my usual references gave me a distressingly C+ job-losing mediocre reference, complete with tepid unenthusiastic answers to questions like, “would you strongly recommend this indidvidual?” “yes”  he responded. I was hoping for “You bet I would, in fact, he’s such a great employee that I recommend you clone him, so you can have more than one of him on the team.” or something similarly laudatory. I found myself with a dilemma on my hands. Silently drop my reference and substitute another, or talk to my reference and risk a long-standing professional relationship that has become a close friendship. I always prefer to be open with friends, and I had him down as a reference for real pending applications, so I decided to talk to him about it. The conversation went much better than I could have hoped, and I found out that the reason for his tepid reference was that he was stressed, sleep deprived, and that, prior to our conversation, he didn’t really understand his role. Thanks to A&T, he knows that as my reference he is acting as my advocate, now and in the future.

A&T’s services aren’t inexpensive, but professional services never are. The value of knowing what your references are saying about you in this job market cannot be overestimated. Knowing how your references will respond and ensuring that each of the people recommending you know their role as your advocate can also help keep beady-eyed, scrawny-necked paranoia and fear right where they belong — out in the harsh light of day where you can keep a wary eye on them.

Will McBride blames himself, hopes it’s the economy, and wants you to know that if you hire him you’ll be glad you did. He can be reached at

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