For many folks, references are no problem. Bosses, subordinates, and peers are a great source of career opportunities. You may have been promoted. Former associates may lead you to outside opportunities. When you’re being “referenced,” you naturally want to make the best impression. Here are some tips.
Step one is to reach out.
Start your job search campaign by reaching out to your work-related personal contacts, both present and past. Ask for a reference – not a job. Gather your list of appropriate people whose interest you’ve tested – and rekindled – either face-to-face, or by phone. This is important, because “interviewing” potential references showcases your availability. It also lets you know who’s enthusiastic, and who’s lukewarm.
Don’t overdo it in sharing references.
Even though you’ve determined exactly whom you want potential employers to talk to, do not accompany your resume with a list of references. Neither recruiters nor employers expect tor want this information until you’re given an offer. And your references are most enthusiastic when first contacted. If they have to respond numerous times, tediousness can follow. Their answers may be more mechanical and less enthusiastic.
Use work-related references.
Since you are a candidate for employment, almost all your references must be work-related. Additionally, your potential employer wants to know how good you are today – not how wonderful you were a long time ago.
So, if you’re employed, you must shine a light on your current reputation in your present company. And if you’re “between jobs,” you’ve got to show how you were thought of in the job you’ve just left. The number-one person your potential employer wants to talk to is your current boss, if you’re employed. Or your most recent boss, if you’re not.
I know it can be unfeasible to serve up your current boss as a reference for an outside opportunity. No one will expect you to. But try to come up with two or three people whose confidentiality you can rely on, and who know firsthand how well you’re doing now. Perhaps a trusted direct report or peer. Maybe the head of a department or business unit who works closely with you … and hopefully, your subordinates and superiors as well. An outside supplier or customer who works closely with your organization is another possibility.
Someone who’s recently left your company – and is discreet – is a good choice to maintain your confidentiality. He or she doesn’t care whether you stay or leave.
If you’re employed, you can certainly refuse to allow contacting anyone in your current company. But truthfully, evasion will raise red flags. Every capable and praiseworthy person makes at least a few friends among the people he or she works with. If there’s nobody you can trust, your potential employer will wonder why.
And if you’re unemployed, there’s no reason at all why your potential employer shouldn’t talk to your most recent boss. So even if you parted on a negative note, you should prepare for the inevitable. That favorite boss from 12 years ago won’t substitute for your most recent one.
There is safety in numbers. The more open and accommodating you are in allowing yourself to be appraised, the stronger you look from the get-go.
So, when the time for referencing arrives, say something like:
“When I’m hiring, I like to know as much as possible about the person I’m considering. I’ll put together a list of names and contact information, and you can contact anyone you want to.”
Then, adopt a transparency mindset. Offer a list that covers all your recent jobs and includes an ample representation of bosses, subordinates, peers, and other associates who know your work. Provide home as well as office phone numbers if your references are willing.
Remember that with this extensive list, you can edit. Include the person for whom you’ve done most of your most recent work, even if the parting was unfriendly and the evaluations is likely to be negative. Omitting him or her can put up that red flag. But, you can make sure that person’s opinion is in context of others who will be objective. Often negative references don’t return calls. And companies have policies restricting commentaries to the facts, whereas those with glowing things to say will often expound at length.
The quantity matters, because it can balance the negative with the positive. If the worst happens and you get a bad reference from a recent boss, you can pad it with those more favorable. Weaving your reference list with testimonials is a fabulous tool to add to your communication and references suite.
When a recruiter or hiring authority talks to a reference, she wants to hear the same story she heard from you. You say:
“I’ve always had terrific relationships with my supervisors, and Mary was no exception.”
But when Mary gets the call from the recruiter about you, she says:
“Honestly, our chemistry wasn’t great, and the perpetual squabbling got to be draining.”
This is a problem. It would have been much better to have delivered a high-quantity list of references, along with a forewarning:
“I’ve always gotten along well with all my bosses and peers. My boss, Mary was the only exception.”
Don’t overdo it with expecting problems and producing negatives that may not materialize. Most folks want to help, and are gracious. Even that boss who fired you may well feel badly and want to do what he can to help you. Just don’t forget to lay groundwork, if there is a negative that you are certain will rear its ugly head.
What experience with references do you have to share? I’d love to hear from you!