FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: Why do so many companies request personal references on job applications (especially online) even before setting up an interview? They usually ask for contact information for teachers, relatives, and acquaintances, as well as bosses and coworkers, both current and former.
I'm really not comfortable with this, for several reasons. First, I'm in my mid-40s and have been out of college a long time, so giving professors as references isn't practical. Second, I don't like to provide information on family and friends because it's too personal. As for work-related references, most of my previous colleagues and supervisors have retired or moved on, and I've lost touch with them. And I don't want anyone at my current company to know I'm job hunting, so they're out too. So my question is, can I just decline to give references? Employers usually don't take the time to check them anyway, do they? — Stumped in San Francisco
Dear Stumped: Well, of course you can decline to give references -- but don't be surprised if that brings any further contact with a prospective employer to a screeching halt. "Companies certainly do check references," says Jeff Shane, executive vice president of reference-checking firm Allison & Taylor. "Especially in this job market, where there are often many qualified candidates competing for each opening, saying 'no' to this request is rolling the dice."
Personal references are relatively unimportant, he adds, since kind words from your friends "generally don't carry much weight anyway. What is critical, however, is strong professional recommendations, particularly from former bosses." Refusing to let hiring managers contact them, Shane says, is "a red flag" -- in large part because it suggests you have something to hide -- and could well cost you the job before you've even been interviewed for it.
So what should you do now? First, try to track down at least two or three of the people who were familiar with your work in the past and with whom you've since lost touch. Ideally, these would be people to whom you reported, but erstwhile peers and others (satisfied clients, for example) will do in a pinch. Google them, look them up on LinkedIn, or see if professional associations or mutual acquaintances have any information on how to reach them. More
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