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Employment references have been one of the more volatile areas of business communication in recent years, and the situation is often frustrating for everyone involved. With the threat of lawsuits over negative references, many employers now offer nothing more than confirmation of dates of employment. On the other side of the equation, recruiters are frustrated by the time and work it can take to track down anyone willing to provide balanced feedback on candidates, and candidates are sometimes frustrated by their inability to provide meaningful references.

In response to the challenges faced by prospective employers, a new class of software is helping recruiters get the information they need to make informed hiring choices—and the implications for job seekers are huge. These systems essentially automate a confidential online survey of a candidate's references. The candidate provides names and email addresses of a specified number of references, and the references then respond to a standardized questionnaire. As this article in Workforce Management explains, employers who use the systems report dramatic increases in the quantity and quality of information they're able to get on candidates. Given an opportunity to provide confidential feedback, past employers and other references are much more willing to offer candid assessments.

Now for the implications for job seekers, particularly less-experienced workers who might not appreciate just how long a bad reputation can follow one throughout a career. Employers who use these systems require candidates to provide references, and those references are protected by anonymity (and liability waivers, in at least one of the systems we looked at). The chances of botching up a job and moving on with no damage to one's career are going to shrink as more employers adopt these tools. Students should be aware that even those part-time and entry-level jobs they can't wait to escape from could come back to haunt them if they leave behind a negative reputation.

On the plus side, these systems should benefit employees who exhibit professionalism and dedication to the job, because their former managers will be free to provide in-depth information to future employers.