"No matter how you leave a company, you need to know what your immediate past employer is going to say about you to prospective new ones," Allison says. "People mistakenly think that all employers will simply verify your past employment, but this couldn't be further from reality. In many cases, people talk more than they should when providing a reference."
When negotiating a professional reference, a person needs to confirm if he or she is eligible for rehiring, what is the specific reason for losing the job and, if the employer will provide a reference, what exactly is going to be said? Like any negotiation, Allison recommends getting the answers to these questions in writing.
Job seekers also need to know who is going to be providing the professional reference, for it is not just what is said but how it is said. A reference's voice inflection can tell a prospective employer a lot about a person's true feelings.
"In many instances, it's best for a human resources executive without emotional ties to a former employee to provide the reference," Allison said. "The worst case is an emotional boss who one day may provide a favorable reference and the next day the opposite just because he or she may be having a bad day."
If there is a concern that a former boss may say something derogatory or untrue about a former employee when asked for a professional reference, the human resources department should be contacted to clarify the company's reference policy.
"Believe it or not, many managers don't know the official reference policy of a company and inadvertently say too much," Allison said. "Someone in human resources needs to remind them of the rules, which force former bosses to temper their comments."
In some cases, prospective employers who cannot reach a candidate's professional references simply eliminate that person from contention.
"The interviewing and reference-checking process is all about impressions," Allison explains. "What kind of impression do you think a candidate provides if a so-called professional reference refuses to acknowledge a candidate worked for them? Not good."
So, what is a job seeker to do if a former employer drops the ball, so to speak? According to Allison, one may have to hire an attorney to prompt the company to cooperate.
"A letter is sent on one's behalf to the company, explaining that the candidate needs a job and asking them to provide a professional reference following set policies," Allison says. "Most companies are sympathetic to a candidate's efforts to find another position and then return the call from the prospective employer."
An "official" letter of recommendation never replaces a professional reference verbally provided to a hiring manager, she stressed.
"Letters of recommendation really aren't effective in today's job market," Allison says. "A candidate can work with the letter provider to assure the letter says all the right things so, in the minds of many hiring managers, they have little credibility no matter who it comes from."