Managing Your Job References

Jun 29 2010 in Featured, Job Search Strategy, reCareered Blog by Phil Rosenberg

Most job seekers leave their recommendations up to chance – when careful planning can help you tell the most important parts of your story to a potential employer.

The extent of most candidates reference planning stops at asking prior bosses, peers and clients to give a reference. While it’s polite to ask your reference first, it’s just not enough.

Do you know exactly what the reference is going to say to a potential employer? Since this is something you can control, why leave it up to chance?

Why Manage References?

Most candidates leave the content of their references up to chance, because they don’t know what their references are saying … placing their faith that it will be something “positive”.

Just because a reference is positive, doesn’t mean it provides the help (or the right type of help) that you may need.

  1. ”Positive” references come in many flavors: Will your reference give you just an OK ref, a good ref, or a truly great reference? The difference between these types of “positive” references can be communicated by tone, pacing, enthusiasm, and word choice. Do you know how “positive” of a reference you are being given (may not correlate to the positive reviews you got)?
  2. References each tell a part of your story: A “positive” reference may naturally talk about the same aspect of your performance as the rest of your references. On one hand, it’s nice that everyone says the same thing, but it limits the outside corroboration that references provide your personal story. You’re typically better represented if each references focuses on a different skill that you bring to an employer. Often the references you choose truly want to help, but don’t know what to say that will help you.
  3. Reference doesn’t know what’s important to the company: Will your reference choose to talk about what a great team player you were, not realizing you are interviewing for a role where individual contribution is more important than collaboration? Will your well-meaning reference talk about the great job you did as a generalist, when your prospective employer is looking for specific subject matter expertise?

Most candidates leave these types of issues with references up to chance. Since there is so much out of your control in job search, isn’t it in a candidate’s best interest to actively manage the things they can control?

Now that you realize some of the risks of unmanaged references, let’s talk about how to manage your references.

How To Manage References:

Managing references can be uncomfortable for many candidates. After all, many of your references are people you used to work for, and now you are asking them for a favor.

How can you manage your references, without feeling like (or appearing like) you’re telling your former boss what to do?

  1. When you ask for the reference: Ask on the phone or in person, not through email. Have a conversation, explain your situation, ask for their advice. Chances are the people you are asking to serve as a reference were at one time mentoring you and taking an active interest in your career. Towards the end of the conversation, after they have agreed to serve as your reference, also ask your reference if they would be so kind as to focus on specific accomplishments or skills you exhibited when you worked for them. This not only serves as a reminder (it may have been a while since you were a direct report), you can also let them know that you have other references that each covering different areas of your experience.
  2. Follow up before each anticipated hiring manager call: When you expect that a specific company will call for a reference, make a call to your reference (an email is acceptable here) – reminding them that they agreed to be a reference, make sure they are available (not out of town), and give them a heads up (so they will know the employer call isn’t a sales call). Take the opportunity here to suggest the reference can help you by fine tuning the message – mention that the company is looking for ways to cut costs, so mentioning some of the process improvement projects that you led and the savings you generated would be a big help.
  3. Don’t try to put words into your ref’s mouth: Suggesting topics and areas of hiring manager interest is OK, scripting words for the reference is not. Telling your reference exactly what you want them to say can have unfortunate results – if it comes across as scripted or unnatural to the employer, recruiter, or HR staff, the reference (and therefore you) can lose credibility. Worse, a reference may resent this or may feel it’s unethical, potentially alienating an ally.
  4. Test your references: Just because you expect a “positive” reference doesn’t tell you how positive it will be. Have a friend call every reference you give – and report back to you.
  5. Make sure you know how they answer the most important question: “If you had a need for someone with X’s skills, would you hire them again?” When your friend calls, if the answer is less than overwhelmingly positive, find another reference.

By the time an employer or recruiter calls your references, you are being seriously considered for a position, often a finalist … or THE finalist. References that unknowingly change the employer’s perception of you can kill your chances for the job – even if your reference had the best of intentions.

By knowing what your references are likely to say and offering hints of what an employer is seeking can help you guarantee that you’re getting the maximum help from your references.

Do you know exactly what your references are saying about you?


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Author: Phil Rosenberg

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