Whether you're the employer with a job to fill or the job applicant, you can never tell if you've made a good match until the marriage has been consummated. Nevertheless, attempting to improve the odds is worth the effort for both parties.
My last column pointed out that an employer should not assume that people cited for references will offer nothing but praise. They're worth talking to. But don't limit yourself to the list if praise is all you hear, especially if the applicant's most recent supervisors are not included.
In general, the best people to check with are those who know how someone has performed in his or her latest job. Normally, they have observed this person handling a level of responsibility closest to that of the job opening.
Occasionally, you'll uncover some untruths. You'll learn that an applicant has played a lesser role in some project than claimed, or that one who is supposedly working has actually been fired.
But what if job candidates don't want their present employers to know they're looking around? You should honor their wishes, but you should also try to find mutually acceptable ways to investigate further. Ask about people familiar with their current work who can be trusted to keep an inquiry confidential.
My views on these matters are not universally shared, but they're typical enough to be significant from another perspective--that of the job hunter. You should be virtually certain that anyone on your reference list will commend you highly. And you should think seriously about other people who might be contacted.
What should you do if you didn't get along with a previous boss? I lean towards acknowledging the situation and defusing its possible impact as best you can. You don't have to point out specifically that a person will bad-mouth you if called, but you can mention your reasons for leaving a company.
Fortunately for job applicants, most hirers have witnessed unjust treatment or have themselves been victims of it. So they know that not every harsh opinion should be believed. What they won't appreciate, however, if they discover it, is your glossing over a bad situation. If it wasn't discussed openly in your interview, they may not bother to call you and ask about it.
Another point: if you want to keep your present employer in the dark about your job search and you can't come up with trusted references, gather other evidence, such as letters of commendation. The more you can show that you're valued where you are, the easier it is to make a good move.
Lastly, try to make sure that a move is a good one. Learn all you can about your prospective boss, co-workers and company. The check-up route doesn't have to be a one-way street.
In other words, don't just look for a job. Look for job satisfaction. Or you'll be doing both far more often than you care to.