Reference checks used to matter a lot. Fifty years ago. When people only changed jobs twice in their life, and they didn't know anyone outside of their company, it made sense that the second company called the first company.
Then, when it became clear that the first company could say one, tiny bad thing and then make this person unemployable (because they had only worked for one person their whole life), giving bad references basically became illegal.
So that pretty much put the kibosh on the usefulness of corporate references. Yet people still ask for them today. So here are some ways to get a good reference.
Get a ringer lined up ahead of time.
There is no rule that says you have to use your last employer as a reference. Explain to a prospective employer that you are giving the name of a person who knows you well and can speak to the issues this particular employer is interested in. Then give the name of a ringer. For almost a decade my favorite ringer was my boyfriend, who dated me and hired me and gave me glowing reviews even after he dumped me.
Give a company you hate as a reference, if you have to.
Let's say you worked for a company for a year and it didn't go well. Maybe your boss was incompetent. Maybe you hated the work. You can spin that in the interview — just talk about what you liked. There's gotta be something you liked. And then, when it comes time for a reference check, you can give the phone number for human resources. As long as it's a big company, HR will be trained to just confirm dates of employment and title. Nothing else, because they don't want to get into legal trouble. And, if you want to make sure the company won't say anything bad, hire a company like Allison & Taylor to find out.
Don’t work for a person who relies on reference checks. They're lame.
Rebecca Thorman has one of the most interesting discussions about references that I've seen in a long time. First, she says that references are outdated because most good jobs require that you know someone to get in the door. And this goes back to the idea that a network matters a lot more than references. If you have someone referring you who knows the hiring manager then that's all the reference you need.
Rebecca also points out, (in an impressive video) that rich people have never needed references. That makes sense to me: Rich kids have always had their parents' friends in high-up places vouching for them. They have a built-in network. So today, social media democratizes networking, and it should, therefore, democratize the reference process. Get a referral for a job and you won't need to go through reference checks either, no matter where you fall on the economic spectrum.
Replace reference checks with networking.
I think references are outdated. I think they are an old-school word for a network, and people who have strong networks and work for people with strong networks don't bother with reference checks because they generally only hire people who come recommended by someone they know.
To understand how the uber-networked handle the reference check, take a look at the venture capital community. Their job is to know everyone, so they don't miss a deal, and to know everyone's weaknesses, so they can mitigate their risk. My favorite VC blog is by Fred Wilson, and today he talks about how he does face-to-face reference checks so that people are more forthcoming.
The first thing I think of is, Would that boyfriend have put himself through a face-to-face reference check for me? But the next thing I think is that no one would ask. You have to be hiring at a very high level to make this worth your time (Fred is hiring CEOs.)
In any case, this is a good example of how networking and references merge. And you don't have to be in the VC community to see that if you are best off if you surround yourself with other people who see this merge coming as well.