Playing reference detective

November 4, 2009 at 1:14 pm Leave a comment

Several email correspondents have written in worried that someone in their recent past is blackballing them. The story is like this: The hiring process for a job seems to be going well until they hit the reference stage. Then, the cone of silence — they can’t get their calls or emails answered, and then they hear someone else got the job. Or things are proceeding well but abruptly stop without warning — is someone smearing your good name? What to do?

It’s a situation that requires some detective work but hiring experts say to proceed cautiously so that you don’t make the situation worse. Yet they say a potential reference brush fire should be put out swiftly  so that you don’t lose out on future positions as a result. Here are some tips:

*First make sure it’s not your own reference that is giving you problems. (See a recent blog post on this topic: “Getting the most out of your references.”) It’s important before you list someone as a reference to make sure you know what they are going to tell prospective employers about you. If you didn’t do this initially and you suspect one of your references may be saying some negative things along with the positive, politely question them about this. If it sounds like this reference is giving you trouble, replace them with a more effective reference for future openings.

*If you are concerned that a former employer is passing along negative information about  you, check with a trusted source there to see what he or she is hearing.  Is someone badmouthing you there, and might they be passing on negative information? Find out what the HR department’s official policy is on references — your potential employer will likely check there even if you don’t list references with the company.

*If you strongly suspect someone is passing along bad information, ask someone you know there — especially if this is at a workplace you recently left — to talk to them and explain the situation. This is less awkward and potentially less flammable than you doing so.

*If that doesn’t achieve the desired results move to the next phase: Politely but directly question the person you think may be a problem. Ask them if they have been in touch with the prospective employer and gauge their reaction. If it appears they may have been spreading some gossip or bad information about you, explain to them the cost this could have to your career and try to politely refute their negative impression of you. Embarrass them a bit if necessary. Often bullies back down when politely and firmly confronted. This is a tricky step and should be taken only if your evidence  points directly to this individual badmouthing you.

*Finally, ask the prospective employer what happened, especially once it’s clear you’re not getting the job. Rather than putting the hiring manager on the spot, experts say it’s better to say something like this: It’s important to me to do better the next time in the hiring process. What suggestions do you have on how I might improve? (Not: Why didn’t you hire me?) If they ‘fess up on the reference, politely explore this with them and see if it matches what you have discovered. If they don’t mention that, you can then bring up your reference worry. There is, of course, a possibility your suspicions were incorrect and there was another reason or reasons you failed to get the job — and better to know than guess for future reference! (pun intended!)

*As always, a couple of job leads to note:

*The first is for a tenure-track position in broadcast journalism at American University in D.C. A great gig for a journalist with the right kind of experience. Hat tip to; the link and description follows:

Job Summary

Broadcast Journalism Assistant Professor POSTED: Nov 03
Salary: Open Location: Washington, D.C.
Employer: American University, School of Communication Type: Full Time – Experienced
Category: Education Required Education: Masters

Employer Information

About American University, School of Communication American University is a private doctoral institution situated in a residential neighborhood of northwest Washington, D.C. Our student body is cosmopolitan and globally diverse, with all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 144 countries represented. Six percent of undergraduates and 11 percent of graduate students are international. The School of Communication at American University was established in 1984, and is a laboratory for professional education, communication research, and innovat….more infoView all our jobs

Job Description

American University School of Communication
Tenure Track Position in
Broadcast Journalism


The nationally-accredited Journalism program in The School of Communication at American University is seeking an experienced broadcast journalist for a tenure-track position beginning in August of 2010.
Applicants should be able to teach in a sophisticated interactive environment. Courses will include broadcast (television and radio) and interactive journalism, including core courses in broadcast writing, reporting and news production. Experience in line-producing, ENPS, non-linear editing, other digital audio and video editing software and equipment, using the Internet as a news research tool and strong skills in CAR are highly desirable. Teaching will include both undergraduate and graduate courses and may also include the School’s weekend graduate programs.
Qualifications: Candidates should have substantial professional experience and an MA or Ph.D. Prior teaching experience at a university level is preferred, with a documented record of effective teaching. Responsibilities also include scholarly activity (research/creative activity/professional activity) and service on departmental and university committees, and leadership in professional and academic groups.
Submit application letter, resume or vitae, transcripts and names, addresses and telephone numbers of three references to: Chair, Broadcast Journalism Search Committee, School of Communication, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW, MGC Rm 300, Washington, D.C. 20016-8017.
Review of applications will begin immediately, and will continue until the position is filled.
Rank and Salary: The successful candidate will be appointed at the rank of an Assistant Professor. Candidates with established teaching and research track records may be considered at a higher rank. Salary is negotiable, depending on qualifications and experience.
The School of Communication has more than 900 undergraduate and 300 graduate students in journalism, film & media arts, and public communication programs. American University is an independent, co-educational university with more than 11,000 students. SOC is a laboratory for professional education, communication research, and innovative production in journalism, film and media arts, and public communication. The School works across media platforms with a focus on public affairs and public service. For more information about the School of Communication, please visit
The American University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer committed to a diverse faculty, staff and student body. Applications from women and minorities are particularly invited.
NOTES: International Candidates Will Be Considered.
Additional Salary Information: Salary is negotiable


Candidates should have substantial professional experience and an MA or Ph.D. Prior teaching experience at a university level is preferred, with a documented record of effective teaching. Responsibilities also include scholarly activity (research/creative activity/professional activity) and service on departmental and university committees, and leadership in professional and academic groups.

*And while this isn’t a job listing per se those available to relocate to New York could find a good local news opportunity — so increasingly rare! — with the Wall Street Journal. From

WSJ Will Hire Twelve To Cover New York City

By Rachel Kaufman on Nov 03, 2009 04:15 PM

Right after announcing it would close its Boston bureau, the Wall Street Journal is gonna make a brand new start of it in old New York, with the announcement that the paper will hire a dozen reporters to cover traditional city desk beats in the Big Apple.

It’s part of owner Rupert Murdoch’s plan to create a New York edition, which could launch early next year, the New York Times reports.

An obvious choice for the NYC staffers would be the laid-off Boston writers, but they covered the Boston mutual fund industry, not crime, courts, and city hall. Even assuming that all nine Boston writers switch beats, that still leaves three open slots, so get that résumé ready.

Happy hunting!



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