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5 Tips: Get Strong IT Job References

What can you do to ensure that references don't sink your IT job search effort? Consider these tips from an insider.

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It's never entirely easy for an IT professional to leave a job. Even under the best of circumstances, feelings of anger and resentment can bubble to the surface, negatively impacting a job seeker's ability to later land a positive reference--and future employment.

"It's an employer's market," warned Jeff Shane, an executive VP at Allison & Taylor, a professional reference checking and employment verification company. "Companies can afford to be picky because they now have more than one excellent candidate for most positions. As a result, anything that appears as a negative, like a poor reference, can be a show-stopper for an IT professional."

Here are 5 things every techie needs to know about landing an excellent reference from a previous employer.

1. References for IT pros are among the most likely to be critical. Because millions of dollars tend to ride on a single software implementation or hardware installation, IT professionals' references tend to be more brutally honest, and often lean to the negative side, according to Shane. "IT professionals’ references tend to be a little more animated and consequential for IT people because of the magnitude of any mistakes. They need to be aware of that."

[ The skills you've developed working in IT can pave the way to a career in a non-tech field. See Leaving IT: 4 Job Options For Frustrated Techies. ]

2. Part ways amicably with senior-level executives, including the CIO. While human resources professionals are trained to be diplomatic when providing references, that's not always the case for supervisors. Poor past performance or an ongoing disagreement may result in a critical reference. "IT professionals need to be concerned about their former supervisor and their second-level supervisor when seeking a reference," warns Shane. Not just HR.

3. Don't assume anything. "Many people assume that a given reference would have their back and wouldn't offer any negative input," said Shane. Surprisingly, Shane said of the 1,000s of references Allison & Taylor sifts through a year, "about half of them come back with some form of negativity. In theory, none of them should. But if you're a job seeker, never ever assume that you're getting a neutral or favorable reference."

So how do you know if you're getting a bad reference from a once-supportive employer? If the trail keeps going "stone cold" with every job application, Shane said it could be "a tip-off that a reference did not pan out."

4. Look beyond job performance. A botched ERP deployment or lousy-looking website design can easily cost an IT professional his or her job. But a personality conflict can just as easily tarnish an otherwise promising reference. "An employer may think the IT employee has not met expectations and has let down the organization and there may be grounds for that," says Shane. "But sometimes the personal chemistry isn’t what it needs to be either."

In fact, Shane estimates that a personality clash accounts for about 25 percent of all bad references. So if you and a colleague never got along, try not to count on him or her for a reference, even if it was a job well done.

5. You can ask directly for a good reference. Many IT professionals leave a job simply crossing their fingers about landing a good reference. But you don't have to leave things to chance. "When you’re parting company from a previous employer, sit down with the key people who are going to be references such as a CIO or HR folks," says Shane. "Ask them if you can hope for a favorable reference and even coach them on the skill sets you’d appreciate they focus on when a prospective employer calls."

If an exit interview isn’t possible, touch base with your former employer within a month or so of your departure and try arranging a post-employment discussion to go over your career history with the company, Shane advises.

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