Shocking, but true.
Here's why: When hiring managers get to the point that we want to talk to your references, we want to talk to them—on the phone, where we can ask questions and probe around. We want to hear their tone, hear where they hesitate before answering, hear what happens when we dig around about potential problem areas.
Plus, we know that those letters don't count for much, having been asked to write them ourselves. No one puts critical information in those letters, even though constructive criticism can be had for everyone, no matter how great they are, and that sort of information is obviously of great interest when checking references.
Taken to an extreme, letters can even hurt you. I've had applicants attach 10 or more letters of recommendation to their application. That kind of overkill looks silly and naive.
When I'm ready for references, I'll ask you for phone numbers of people who are willing to talk to me about you. Until then, hold your fire.
Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-size nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim magazine , and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.