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10 Common (and Corrosive) Job Reference Mistakes

In the job hunt, there is so much focus on the resume and the interview that your professional references don't get enough attention. But there are several mistakes that many job applicants make with their references that could easily be avoided.

1. You've got "References Upon Request" on your resume. Employers and recruiters know they can get references from you at the appropriate time. It's a given. You're actually wasting valuable real estate on your resume when you do this, and you'd be better off filling that space with more job experience, skills, or education information.

2. You send your list of references without being asked. It's not necessary to send your references to every potential employer. For one reason, you could inundate your references with calls, and they won't even be prepared by knowing what position you've applied for. Instead, focus on only giving references to employers who are serious about hiring you, and give your references a heads up to prepare for the call.

3. Your references aren't prepared. Piggybacking on No. 2, it's important to have your references know a little about the position you've applied for so they can discuss your most relevant skills and provide you with the strongest possible reference. Applying for a variety of positions without letting your references know is equivalent to throwing both them and yourself under the bus.

4. Your references can't speak to your job experience. When you're young, you may not have that many people who can give a recommendation on your professional experience, but resist filling the list with your friends and family. Instead, look to past college professors, internship or volunteer coordinators, or mentors to talk you up. If you have relevant job experience, your most recent employers and colleagues will be your strongest reference. Typically, the more recent the reference, the better. References tend to forget many of the specifics of working with you over time.

5. You haven't asked your references for permission. If you list former bosses on your reference list and they are unaware of it, you risk them being taken by surprise, and even possibly giving a shaky recommendation. Always ask for permission to use someone as a reference, and give them as much information about the jobs you're applying for as possible.

6. You list bad references. Make sure you'd get a good recommendation from anyone you put on your reference list. Some employers will not formally give any more information other than dates of employment and information on your eligibility for rehire. If the answer is no, you've lost your chance at the new job.

7. Your contacts are outdated. Before providing your references, you should make sure all the contact information is updated, so that you don't waste the time of potential employers. You don't want to hold up the reference-checking process because you can no longer locate one of your references. Checking in periodically is a good way to stay in touch and reconnect as well.

8. Your references are old. If you use a boss from 10 years ago as a reference, potential employers might scratch their heads and wonder why you don't have anyone more recent who can vouch for you. If you do use an old boss or mentor, make sure it's someone you still stay in touch with and you have more recent references to send along.

9. Your reference list is long (or short). No employer is going to call a lengthy list of contacts, so unless you're asked differently, aim for three to five people--and ask what types of references the employer wants. Some employers only want to talk to previous bosses where others may want to hear from a client as well as a boss and a junior colleague.

10. You didn't bring your references to your interview. Always be prepared and bring extra copies of your resume as well as your reference list to the interview. Better to have it and not need it than to be caught empty-handed.

Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.

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