3 Subtle Ways Your References Will Mess Up Your Job Chances (Plus, Fixes!)

Congratulations! The hiring manager asked for a short list of references. And now, your only job is to sit back and wait for those people to give you glowing reviews about how you’ll fix all of the company’s problems. Time to celebrate your inevitable job offer, right?

For a long time, I thought that was how it always went down after a final interview. But then, I got an unsettling email about one of my references that shook my entire world and kept me on pins and needles for days.

I eventually got the job, but I learned (the hard way) that reference calls don’t always go smoothly. And at some point in your career, the people you list may find a way to negatively impact your chances of getting a gig.

Here are some of those ways—and how to avoid them altogether.

1. They’ll Talk More About Your Friendship Than Your Accomplishments

It’s only natural for your former work spouse to sing your praises—especially when it comes to things like those venting sessions you were always available for and the times you were always up for grabbing a drink after work. But sometimes, they’ll only talk about these things, and lose sight of the fact that the hiring manager’s looking for anecdotes that highlight your skill set.

How to Handle This

Think about the names you’re submitting. If your list if full of former co-workers who only know you socially at your office—and haven’t worked with you closely—cross them out. And instead reach out to colleagues who can speak to your professional abilities.

Then, go even further and prep your references before they speak to your potential boss by telling them what you envision the responsibilities of this job will be and giving them a short primer about what you’ve been up to lately.

2. They’ll Ghost the Hiring Manager

In my experience, this isn’t typically a purposefully malicious move. People rarely say yes, only to screw you over. But sometimes they don’t have their phones nearby when a hiring manager calls. Or they’re having a busy day at work. Or 10 million other reasons.

Whatever the reason, it’s not uncommon for a reference to be unavailable—leaving the hiring manager at a bit of a loss for what to do next.

How to Handle This

Recruiters tend to be at least somewhat transparent about when they plan on reaching out to your contacts. Some might tell you that they expect their calls to wrap up by the end of the week. Others go a little further and tell you they usually make calls during a specific time of day.

Make sure to relay that information to anyone you’ve asked to be a reference for the position. And tell them if they don’t have the time, it’s OK, and you can ask someone else. (It’s better to give someone an out, then end up in this situation.)

3. They’ll Talk Way Too Much

When I was recruiting, I had a short script for reference calls. If I were to show you that script, you’d see that I was just trying to confirm that our top candidates weren’t crazy people. But even though I made it clear at the beginning of my conversations that I only anticipated needing a few minutes, there were more than a handful of discussions that ran so far over time that I ended up missing my lunch.

How to Handle This

This is something else you can address with your references. In addition to gently reminding them that there’s a job on the line, you can also give them a heads up about how long it should take. How can you find that out? I can’t speak for all recruiters, but they often range from five to 10 minutes and usually only involve four or so questions.

You should be proud of the fact that you made it this far in the interview process! Even though you’re technically not answering any more questions, the work isn’t done yet. Your references know you well, but they’re not perfect.

And while there’s not a silver-bullet solution to making them say everything you want them to say about you, don’t just hope for the best. Take the situation into your own hands and tell your references as much as possible (and for your convenience, here’s a simple email template that’ll help you do that).

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