Do References Really Matter?

Q: I’ve worked several jobs since separating from the Army. Some have been contracting positions, others as an exempt employee. Some have been with high-profile international companies. Not once have any of my previous employers or references been contacted. Do references really matter anymore? It seems to me they are even less important than cover letters and the objective statement in resumes.

A: You would be mistaken to think that references hold little weight, especially in the current depressed job market. “References absolutely matter,” says Paul W. Barada, president of Barada Associates Inc. The Rushville, Ind.,-based firm provides pre-employment screening services for large employers such as Emmis Communications Corp. and Acorda Therapeutics Inc.

Some people who are out of work embellish their past job performance, credentials and academic achievements to gain an edge over the competition, Mr. Barada says.

With applicant pools growing larger by the day, it would be good to assume that employers will be diligently contacting references. “In my experience, references are always being checked,” says Dena Sneider, a career consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. “In this market, they will certainly be checked since employers have their pick of candidates.”

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Staying Afloat in Today’s Crowded Talent Pool


In February, President Obama signed into law the much debated and anticipated $787 billion economic stimulus bill, a plan designed with a primary focus on countering recent, unprecedented job losses. This legislation cannot come quickly enough for the 4.4 million Americans who’ve lost their jobs since Dec. 2007. The past two months were particularly brutal, with layoffs announced seemingly daily by such industry stalwarts as Microsoft, Starbucks, Pfizer, Caterpillar, Home Depot, Macy’s and Nissan. Even CEOs have felt the blow, with more than 60 terminated in 2008 and up to 150 expected to lose the top spot by the end of 2009. While the stimulus package is said to save or create three to four million jobs, this will depend on how efficiently the money is distributed over the next 12 to24 months.

Let’s face reality. Executives who need jobs today cannot wait for a government stimulus to right the economy. In a “buyer’s market” for employers such as this one, it is truly up to you to engineer your own career advancement. Jobs, while scarce, are out there, but differentiating yourself from others on the market will be more challenging than ever.

Even if you have reached the top rungs of the corporate ladder, you might discover in this turbulent job market that potential employers will be looking beyond your core qualifications to your creativity, flexibility and fit into the company culture. Establishing yourself as a best-in-class executive, capable of easily adapting to and thriving during fluctuating economic cycles, will set you apart and enable you to more quickly land a career-enhancing opportunity. Some nontraditional strategies we recommend include:

1. Be open to interim positions or consulting projects. These will allow you to draw an income, keep your skills fresh and position yourself for prime roles once regular hiring levels return. So-called independent workers now comprise more than 30% of the American work force, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, demonstrating an increased willingness on the part of employers and professionals to consider unconventional working arrangements. With many companies unable to hire full-time employees, highly seasoned project or temporary professional workers are an appealing alternative.

2. Consider posts that are a pay grade or title below your most recent position. You’ll be positioned to exceed expectations and possibly turn the “downgrade” into a dream job later on. This is a particularly relevant strategy at organizations with reputations for promoting from within. By consistently over-performing and demonstrating your value to the company, you will ensure that you are at the top of its shortlist when more prestigious opportunities become

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Strangers Lend a Hand to Job Seekers


Once you’ve tapped out your network and run out of recruiters to contact, where do you go to get help finding a job these days? For a growing group of job hunters, total strangers have become the answer.

In late January, Jason C. Blais began following JobAngels, a group on the social-networking site that is dedicated to helping people find jobs. Mr. Blais saw a message posted by a laid-off technology professional asking for support and he volunteered to take the woman under his wing.

Mr. Blais suggested improvements to her résumé. He then sent a copy to a hiring manager at a teaching hospital he knew was seeking candidates for a position matching the job hunter’s qualifications and interests. A week later, the woman was invited to interview for the job. She is still waiting to hear back.

Alarmed by the nation’s rising unemployment rate, many working Americans are going out of their way to help their laid-off counterparts — often complete strangers — secure new positions. They’re sharing job leads, leveraging their networks and making referrals and often putting their own reputations on the line.

“Adversity often brings out a generosity and compassion,” says Tim Irwin, an organizational psychologist in Atlanta.

Career experts agree that the majority of the best jobs are found on the basis of networking or a relationship. “The power of a referral is tremendous,” says Mr. Irwin, author of “Run With the Bulls Without Getting Trampled.” “When I lend my name to a person’s résumé, they benefit from the influence that I have with that individual. Their résumé is going to get different attention. That’s just a reality.”

Mr. Blais, business-development director at, says he developed a strong desire in recent months to help laid-off workers find new positions due to the increasing competitiveness of the job market. “A lot of good people are not even getting their résumé seen because employers aren’t digging that deep into the pile,” he says. “This is just one small way I could help somebody that’s a good candidate.”

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Man puts face on billboard in search of a job

If Mark Heuer doesn’t land a job, at least hundreds of thousands of people will know what he looks like.

Heuer’s seven-times-life-size image, printed on weather-resistant vinyl and illuminated at night by spotlights the size of basketballs, is about to be wrapped around a billboard visible to the drivers of some 60,000 vehicles a day.

Since the 45-year-old Kewaskum-area man has the space for 30 days, that makes 1.8 million chances someone will notice his sign and do what he’s hoping they’ll do: hire him.

This is a guy who takes self-marketing seriously.

“How do you get in front of more people?” he asked rhetorically Wednesday as he explained the thinking that led him to a 14-by-48-foot Clear Channel billboard along Highway 45. “I (have done) a tremendous amount of networking in my job search just to come up empty.”

Heuer has a strong résumé detailing experience as a sales or operations manager at four companies and his most recent work in logistics supply for a contractor in Iraq.

His Web site includes testimonials from former superiors who speak of him in glowing terms – “successful track record of driving sales and development,” “strong interpersonal skills,” “hands-on leader,” “always exceeded performance expectations.”

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