The best references in the world aren't worth much if they hide behind a stringent corporate policy or refer callers to the personnel department. Even if they are only following orders, they're waving one of the worst red flags they can in front of a prospective employer left thinking, "If you've done a good job, why wouldn't your references be willing to say so?"
So how can you make sure your references will say good things about you?
Choose Your References Wisely
Without question, your references should be people with whom you've actually worked on a daily basis within the last five to seven years. They should be people who know you and are familiar with your job performance. Even more importantly, they should be willing to talk to prospective employers or its agents when they call.
Getting permission from those you hope to list as references is also critical. Not only is it the courteous thing to do, but it will also help ensure they will talk to a prospective employer. After all, they'll be expecting the call.
Honesty vs. Overstatement
When you stop to think about what you really want your references to do is say honest things about you, not just good things. Why? Because none of us are perfect. All of us can improve. Hopefully, we gain experience and skill over time. For a reference to suggest that you were the best employee since the invention of sliced bread is a genuine disservice to you in several ways. First, you don't want your references to overstate your skills and abilities in an attempt to help you get a job for which you're not really qualified. Second, an honest assessment of your present skills and abilities, as well as areas for improvement, is far better for you and the prospective employer in the long run. Third, being hired to do a job for which you lack experience, skills or training -- and at which you fail -- will be far more damaging to your career than accepting a job that is right for you in terms of where you are on your career path.
Here's a real-life example of how it works. Not too long ago, we did a reference report for a client in the Midwest who wanted to hire a senior internal auditor. All his references were coworkers from a major CPA firm who were also his friends. They said the candidate had a bright future, had performed well and could handle a variety of tasks. But they were concerned that if the prospective employer expected him to handle senior-level responsibility from day one, he might fail and be thrown off his career path. While that might sound like a bad set of references, there was a happy outcome. The prospective employer was sufficiently impressed with the candidate and his references' comments that he hired the applicant anyway, although at a lower level. Within six months the applicant had gotten his feet on the ground at the new company and was promoted to the position for which he originally applied.
The best way to insure your references can honestly say good things about you is to perform well on the job. While that may seem obvious to even the most casual observer, doing a good job for every employer and moving up the ladder is ultimately how successful people reach their career goals.