Employers who have recently made across-the-board staff cuts may have been forced to let go some smart, honest and hard-working people. With a stellar referral, former employers can help those workers land a new job more quickly. Yet, on the other hand, a weak or less-than-glowing reference can ruin their prospects. And given the difficult job market, a strong referral has never been more crucial, according to a recent survey from The Creative Group, a California-based staffing firm.

The survey gauged over 250 advertising and marketing executives on their feelings about the importance of referrals.

"Even a subtle lack of enthusiasm on the part of a reference can work against job candidates," says Megan Slabinski, executive director of The Creative Group. Choosing words carefully is important, she says, because often the negative points are what the future employer remembers most.

Sometimes past employers choose the wrong qualities to emphasize, Slabinksi says. For example, one executive surveyed said that a reference has mentioned the former employee's penchant for flip-flops and another said the person owned 17 pets.

Often, former employers will find themselves at a loss for words when called upon for a reference. A common mistake that job-seekers make is to ask a high-level former boss to make their recommendation, when that person might not know him or her very well. "The best references aren't necessarily the contacts with the most impressive job titles but those who can speak persuasively about an applicant's merits," says Slabinksi.

Instead of bluffing the phone call – and potentially blowing the person's chance of getting the job – it's best to hand the phone over to someone else who can speak more informatively about their contributions.