NEW YORK (MainStreet) – If you have your list of job references sitting dormant in the same file as your resume, you may want to consider pulling it up and giving it a second look. Now.

If you aren't 100% sure that the people on that list can provide a great reference and won't undermine your ability to get a new job, it may be worth checking in on them and figuring out what they think of you. If your perception of your relationship doesn't match reality, it may be time to have a talk.

“It's important more now than ever for applicants to prepare their references by having proactive conversations with as many of them as possible,” says Ray Bixler, chief executive of online job reference assessment firm Skill Survey in Wayne, Pa. “When you think about the companies that provide opportunities to back-door reference check, applicants have got to do a better job of reminding references of the positive results and positive experiences they had together – even just taking the person out for a cup of coffee, having a bite to eat or saying hello and having a conversation with that person.”

Even with protections in place during the hiring process, job applicants can be torpedoed by a particularly volatile reference. Rochester, Mich.-based reference checking firm AllisonTaylor recently shared some of its horror stories with us and pointed out that some of the myths surrounding references can lead to nasty surprises for job-seekers. The following are just some examples of myths that leave applicants open to unfavorable or even outright malicious references from a former employer.

Myth No. 1: Companies are not allowed to say anything negative about a former employee during a documented reference check.

Sure. The folks at AllisonTaylor point out that some companies have policies that dictate only title, dates of employment and eligibility for rehire can be discussed. But bad references tend to blow right through those rules and badmouth their former employees or colleagues anyway. In fact, Allison & Taylor pulled the following examples of actual answers provided by references when asked fairly simple, benign questions.

We would like to verify that (the candidate) held the position (title) from (dates), is this correct?

“He was an account executive, not a Senior VP.”

“His name doesn't ring a bell.”

“I am not allowed to say anything about this person, as they were fired.”

That's if they'll even answer questions. Some reference responses basically shut down the reference process entirely. Answers ranged from “No comment — they could not do anything correctly in the position they held with us” to “Let's save time: Basically, you could rank them inadequate in all areas.”

“It might not be so easy to invite someone out for a cup of coffee or out to lunch if your experience them has been negative, especially if that person was fired,” Bixler says. “I'd still say there might be an opportunity if there was a way to reopen a conversation in a way that leaves a favorable impression. Maybe you talk about things you've been doing since you worked together and things you've improved and maybe that turns a negative reference into one that might be neutral.”

Myth No. 2: Former employers direct all reference checks to their Human Resources departments, and those people won't say anything negative

While human resources departments are far more likely to follow proper protocol during reference checks, they're still human. Folks checking references will still listen to their tone of voice to see if they're hesitant, evasive or annoyed by the call. If they're angry, shocked, unhappy or or just aghast that anyone thought to contact them about you, that isn't great. Here's what what HR sounds like when it gets a reference call from Allison & Taylor for one of its more infamous employees:

“I do not care to comment at all. I let him go, and that's all I care to say.”

“Are you certain he gave you my name?”

“I'm surprised she even listed us on her work history.”

More than 50% of all references Allison & Taylor get come back lukewarm or negative, so give that some consideration when you think the folks in HR might be your best bet.

Myth No. 3: I should have my employment references listed on my resume and hand them in together

You know what's a great way to turn a good reference into an OK one? Hand their contact information to everyone you interview with and inundate them with calls about jobs you'll never get.

Alison & Taylor suggests keeping your references separate from your resume, providing them only when requested. You can still keep your references on hand when going into an interview, but don't just hand them over unless the person you're interviewing with asks for them.

Myth No. 4: Once a company hires me, my job references don't matter anymore

There's a reason for that initial probation period when you're first hired, and it isn't to allow you to fall on your face. Some companies don't finish background or reference checks before you are hired and will use that period to both evaluate your job performance and make background and reference checks. If those checks don't pan out, they have the legal right to fire you. If they're positive, they can help a manager and new employee pinpoint training needs and settle in a whole lot faster.

“When you hire somebody, it can take months for you to really get to know that person,” Bixler says. “Especially if you never did reference checking or just used the phone to get dates of employments verified. In that case, references can be an on-boarding vehicle.”

Myth No. 5: I sued my former company and according to job reference laws, they are now not allowed to say anything

Your former company can't say certain things when you've sued them, but they aren't forbidden from saying anything. Without addressing the situation directly, they can say what one of Allison & Taylor's more sly references said about a job applicant: “Hold on, let me get the legal file to see what I am allowed to say.”

Without divulging anything that would run them afoul of job reference laws, they indicated there were legal issues surrounding the applicant's employment. If a potential employer isn't willing or able to seek further details, that might be the end of that applicant's chances.

— Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore., for MainStreet 

To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.