References are an expected part of the hiring process.  A job applicant should be prepared to provide references when requested.  Usually it is a good sign if you have advanced in the process to the point that they are checking references.  There are a few key considerations when preparing your references:

Identifying Your References

  • Identify people who can attest to your skills and capabilities on the job.  You should expect to provide at least three references.  They do not want to talk to family members or your best friend!
  • Ideally you will have at least one former manager.  It is common to not want your current manager to know you are looking for a new job so think about former managers at other companies, a manager from the current company who may have moved on, etc.
  • Think about references in terms of the job requirements.  If the job requires you to manage others, include someone you managed.  If the job requires significant cross-functional collaboration include a colleague you worked with on a cross-functional initiative.
  • Provide your list of references with names, titles, companies and both email and telephone contact information.  Be sure you have confirmed the contact information.  Include a note about context, maybe the person now works at company Y but was your manager at company X.   If it is someone you managed, be sure to note that.  Give the person calling your references enough context to ensure success.

Preparing Your References

  • Contact your references in advance.  Let them know you are job seeking and ask their permission to use them as a reference.
  • Verify their contact information.
  • As you feel you are getting close on a position, let your references know.  Tell them about the position, the company and the specific skills you want them to emphasize.
  • The more you prepare them, the more helpful they can be.

Anticipating Informal Reference Checking

  • Most hiring managers realize that applicants will only share references who will say good things.  Therefore, many hiring managers will reach out to informal references.  Who do they know at the company?  Who do they know on Linked In who knows people at the company or who knows you?
  • Because you did not hand select these references, the hiring managers tend to trust the responses.
  • I once interviewed for a job with a manager whose husband worked at a previous employer of mine.  I heard from several former colleagues that he had reached out to the entire department at that company seeking feedback.  I did get the job but they have more than a dozen testimonials from informal references prior to making the decision.

Overcoming Negative References

  • Most companies have strict policies on giving references.  In many instances the manager is required to refer the caller to HR where they will verify employment dates and title.  Obviously this is not helpful to the hiring manager so some managers will chat with hiring managers “off the record.”
  • Few people will actually give a negative reference these days for fear of legal implications.   State the facts only.  Often what is most revealing to the reference checker is what the reference doesn’t say.  If they give short, curt answers and do not offer any examples of work it could well be a red flag.
  • If there is a negative reference, the job seeker often doesn’t know about it and doesn’t know which reference was negative.  A lawsuit could be difficult unless the reference checker is willing to confirm what was said but even then it becomes “he said, she said” with no independent verification.
  • The best strategy is to proactively identify the best possible references and to prepare them well to support you.
  • Some hiring managers will look at Linked In but those recommendations will carry little weight unless it happens to be from someone they know.

Reference Logistics

  • Most hiring managers prefer to speak with the references.  They may use email to schedule the call but a conversation is the best option.  People are more inclined to share more in a conversation than they would put in writing.  It also gives the hiring manager the opportunity to ask follow-up questions.

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