Reference checks are still a crucial part of the job search process but official reference checks are by definition flawed in the favor of the candidate given who they are sourced from (!). Hiring companies also generally have to largely take a candidate’s word and resume at face value. Given that candidates control the information flow on their reputation to prospective employers the balance of power at this stage of the hiring process leans decidedly in their favor – or does it?

Well only if the prospective employer is using exclusively these official channels. More and more these days however employers are using back channel references on candidates and that approach seems to be here to stay. These back-hand whispers aren’t written down or recorded so no technology is going to help you analyze them and act on the results.  So how then do you as a candidate ensure that a conversation about you by two third parties goes in your favor? How do you manage your reputation for when it matters? Here are 3 things to focus on.

1. Always act in your job like your reputation depends on it……because it does!
You will be talked about by third parties regularly throughout your career whether you like it or not, so always act professionally and treat people with respect – peers, direct reports and more senior people in all your roles. As an example of this in action, there are a few candidates out there that I consistently avoid like the plague as I have 360 degree feedback from multiple people that they are difficult to work with or for. As I trust the judgement of my intermediary connections, I know they are not worth pursuing. For these candidates they don’t even know what they could be missing.

2. Be honest in representing your past in a job search
As the old saying goes, if you always tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything. When you describe your work history verbally or in writing on your resume, it is pretty much expected that you are going to present a positive spin on your background but this spin should preclude crossing over the threshold into a lie where a backend reference might contradict you. For example, if you were laid off in a previous role for explicit performance reasons, do not cover that  fact up. It is still your prerogative to explain in a positive light why you couldn’t meet performance expectations but there has to be consistency in a potential future account of the reason for you leaving by a back hand reference. If there is no consistency and you are contradicted by a secret reference then your credibility is at stake and your application can be dead in the water instantly.

3.   Regularly check up on your reputation and adjust where appropriate.
This sounds like a paranoid approach but it is worth getting regular feedback from ex-colleagues, reports and superiors on what their high level thoughts were on working with you – not just the  colleagues / bosses you know liked you and will give you glowing references but the ones that you know might not be that favorable. This is the only way you can address reputation issues and attempt to solve them. Leave them fester and they can harm you later.

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