Why bother to follow up on a job applicant's list of references? Won't anyone named on it just spout praise?

A friend, relative or clergyman is almost sure to. But with business associates, the odds change. I've heard people described as incompetent, lazy, irresponsible, troublemakers or liars--or even all of the above--by the very folks they cited for references.

If these characterizations were unfair, the job applicants were sad cases indeed. And if they were falsely accused, they were at least guilty of bad judgment.

How can relatively bright and qualified job candidates make the mistake of ending up in the latter situation? Easily, if they're overly trusting or new to the job-mating game. And the reason is simple.

If you ask people whether they're willing to be called for a reference--a good one, presumably--you put them on the spot. And, while you can count on the sincerity of a "no" (which is rare), you can't accept "yes" at face value. For many executives it's just the easy way out of an awkward scene.

Some of those who say "yes" without meaning it may feel constrained a bit by having done so, and not rip you apart if they're called. But they can still damn you with praise that's hesitant as well as faint.

As a rule, executives feel compelled to be essentially honest when they are called for a reference. They want the same treatment when they have jobs to fill. And they don't want to feel responsible for someone else's hiring mistakes, or to jeopardize their own reputations in managerial circles.

Of course the whole matter of chosen references is just one aspect of the possible check-up process. If you're job hunting, for example, and suspect that a previous boss will bad-mouth you, what should you do besides omitting this person from your reference list? If you're hiring, what should you do when an applicant doesn't want his or her present employer to be contacted?

I'll try to address these and other questions at another time.

If I had infallible answers, though, I'd be off making a fortune in the recruitment business. After all, some people have done that without them.