I have dealt with the facts of and the effects from references a lot over the years. My first real experience
with the pseudo world of references came when I was a young idealistic worker of 18. I was working for a
movie theater as an usher and I was attempting to purchase a brand new motorcycle, a Suzuki gs500e.
What a great bike. It was my first real big purchase. The first time I had applied for financing. Part of the
application was work verification. I put down my employer’s name, title, address, and phone number. I
really had nothing to worry about everything I had put down on the application was correct. Though I had
extrapolated my wage from the hourly amount to the yearly amount based on a 40 hour week and at the
time I was only working an average of about 35. The difference could be the determining factor in
qualifying. One afternoon a few days after I had submitted my application, I was working and just
happened to be in the manager’s office talking to my boss when the call came in to verify my information. I
got up and was about to leave feeling as if it might be somehow wrong for me to even be in the room when
the manager was answering the questions. As if my information and the conversation was somehow
confidential to the point where I could not even know.
I was about to leave when the manager said, “Hold on.” and put his hand over the mouth piece of the
phone and looked at me.
He said, “It’s a finance company asking me to verify your work information and pay. What do you want me
to tell them?”
I stood a bit stunned and confused as if it was a test of my morality by the manager.
“The truth,” I said, “I make X per hour” which was incredibly low but was at the top of the pay scale for that
job back then.
I had quickly thought and answered with my per hour wage so the illusion of the 35 to 40 an hour
difference would be maintained. He turned back to the phone answered and was done. My heart was
beating quick as He turned back to me to continue our conversation. I was terrified he would indict me
about the amount, or the call or something… Later, I realized what made me nervous was the unknown.
(Note: Never give an unproven or unknown reference. Know the answer before you ask the question.) I
had never applied for anything like this before. I did not know what was legal to ask or even how the
manager would respond. I did not know if there were rules, I didn't know.
He was a good manager and I thought of him as a friend or at least friendly. We got along well and he
asked, “What are you buying?” I told him about the bike and we discussed it for a minute. I said, I had
been concerned about the financing and he laughed a bit. “I could have told them you made more, if you
wanted.” I said, “No, It was ok. It should be fine.” I left the office and went about my job. I replayed the
situation in my mind, I was feeling good that I had gotten thorough this part; that I was going to get the
bike. I realized something. I could have applied for a Corvette or a house or anything and it wouldn’t have
made differenced. My Manager would have told them whatever I had wanted him to (within reason of
course). It was not that he was immoral, just the opposite. He was quit correct in his behavior and
expectations. So what was it? He had no real stack in it. If he did, it was for me his employee. He felt no
obligation to the verifying company. Being a good manager he wanted to see one of his employees doing
well. He wanted his employees to have reliable transportation. On top of it all we were friends. So there
were lots of reasons to say what ever was needed to get the job done. On the other hand he didn’t know
the finance company, it was a company not a person, and no matter what he said there were no possible
repercussions to him. So it was clear…references were and are simply a matter of subjectivity. They are
one person’s opinion.
This example does not cover all aspects of every kind of reference. There are many kinds of references.
There are work and personal references, in-person, over the telephone, by email, or letter, there are
verifications and investigations each posses unique features that should be considered thoroughly. All
references contain the potential for positive support or a negative assault upon you. This one was a
simple work and pay verification (which in California at the time might have been illegal to ask about). The
point of this example is to identify where the referring persons obligation lies, what is the objective of the
situation, and the need to have absolute certainty of the outcome before you give a reference. These
tenants apply to all references.
References can make or break you. A simple word or subtle impression from a reference can result in
dramatic changes in the outcome of a decision. With numbers, dates, and verifications it’s pretty straight
forward and most of the time its just documentation which can be verified. When it comes to jobs, people,
and organizations it is entirely different. There are few if any real rules on the person giving the
reference. They can say what they want or nothing at all and it is not likely you will ever know (without
investigating) and even if you find out you no real recourse. Once your screwed, you’re screwed period,
the end. Go home and try again somewhere else next time.
The Lesson to Learn:
Don’t sweat the reference because you are blind and helpless. Instead, contact your reference verify the
numbers and the information before you give them out to anyone else. If you are not confident and
convinced that they are going to give the response you want then don’t put them down as a reference.
Don’t go into it blind. (Note: By contacting references ahead of time they feel prepared and are more
willing to speak positively about you. You never want the first response from a reference to be…Who? I
don’t know ‘place your name here’… wait oh, ya... I know them.)
The Brutal Truth:
References can make or break you. If you give someone as a reference and it goes bad you can’t do
anything about it. Just don’t use them again.