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Take care when choosing your references

Q: I was recently passed over for a prestigious job because of one of my references. The fact is, this ex-boss was a controlling person who stifled originality in favor of conforming to the way the company had always done things. I do not think I was so bad at playing along, but six years later she still seems to think so. Apparently she did not slam me outright, at least according to the hiring manager, after I pressed for details. Rather, she was “less enthusiastic” than my other two references, co-workers who vouched for my skills.

My mother was shocked that I had even offered this ex-boss as a reference. But I really did not think after all this time that she would throw me under the bus.

I have 28 years’ experience in my field and a strong track record. How do I avoid this former boss’ continuing effect on my career? — Laurie

A: Listen to your mother. She’s right to be baffled by your decision to include a known skeptic on your reference list. It would have been better to find someone else in your work past who is a genuine fan.

There’s a larger point here to be made about references: They should, in all circumstances, be thoughtfully vetted. Ask them directly if they are willing to play this role and analyze the responses.

You’re looking for enthusiasm, of course, but you’re also looking for subtle signals of hesitation. An immediate, “Of course! You are the most awesome person ever!” is easy to interpret. But be alert to the person who takes a week to reply with a lukewarm, “OK – if you think that will be helpful.”

Ferreting out a potential problem can be harder than it sounds. That’s partly because turning down such a request is incredibly awkward. But the real potential pitfall is that we all think of ourselves as qualified job candidates with great track records and can easily convince ourselves that no reasonable person could disagree. (I once suggested to a former intern that I wasn’t sure I was familiar enough with his work to be a useful reference. I was trying to signal that as far as I could tell, he’d done almost no work. He didn’t get the message and instead assured me that I knew enough to endorse him.)

Finally, avoid wishful thinking – in this case, you seemed to assume that surely by now this ex-boss would admit you were great all along. But it doesn’t sound like your negative opinion of her has changed, so why would hers about you? It’s a good rule of thumb, in fact, not to ask for a reference from someone whose work you would assess negatively.

There are other factors to consider in settling on which references to use when you’ve done all your vetting – former bosses may trump former colleagues. But be as confident as possible that everyone on your final list is really on your side.