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I find it odd that we still do this. I know that I am not, by policy, able to give people who have worked for me any reference anymore other than to confirm they worked here from X to X and that they left in good standing.
The HR world is much too painfully strict on this stuff anymore, so I don't put much weight into references. Particularly because if someone will give me a reference, generally they LOVE the person. If I can't ask your previous employer any questions, do I really care that your best friends husband thinks you are a solid hire?
I have a list of references that I just slap into any application. I make sure their people who like me and will report I did good work. I think maybe one job might have actually called my references. I know my current city sent out email questionnaires. The questions were things like how long did he work here, what were his job duties, did he work well with others, etc.
I do think they are important and when hiring, I do call them but I find (and have done it) that a potential employer will call their contacts that may know you whether you have listed them or not - the planning world is pretty small and it may not be fair, especially if you are trying to recover from a bad employment experience but it's done just the same.
That's just it. The current job called a few people I knew, but didn't list and a few people in the city knew me from conferences and stuff. My reputation as a decent person lasted during my exile to Kansas.