career, interviewing, job search, references

References: How to ensure they help get you hired.

At some point in the recruiting and hiring process, you will likely be asked for 2-3 professional references. Over my years as a recruiter, I’ve come to realize that people generally treat professional references one of two ways:

  1. Having forgotten that this might be part of a hiring process, the candidate hurriedly thinks of a few people that they’ve worked for/with at the last minute and hope they can reach said person before the company contacts them.
  2. The candidate understands that this can be a defining part of the selection process, and carefully selects the best possible people for the job (providing an honest account of their skills/abilities/accomplishments/development opportunities).

Here are a few quick tips about selecting your references:

  • Don’t use the same references for every position to which you apply; instead, choose the ones that are most relevant. Do the duties of this position include project managing a major payroll system transition? Then ask the person with whom you worked who can speak most clearly to how you successfully managed a similar project in a prior position. This may not be the same person who can speak to how well you understand SOX controls.
  • You don’t have to pick your manager or supervisor. The best reference is someone who knows you and your capability/accomplishments well. That person may not be your current/former manager/supervisor; instead it might be your co-worker. Or a manager of a different team/department with whom you worked closely on your most major accomplishments. I never use one of my former managers as she didn’t have strong insight into my work; instead, I use the two program managers from the business with whom I worked closely on all of my major projects.
  • ALWAYS ask permission. Never assume that someone is willing to be a reference for you–or anyone. They may have concerns about providing a reference for a former co-worker while still employed at that company. They just may not be comfortable doing it for anyone–not just you. Always ask.
  • ALWAYS have a prep conversation before you submit them as a professional reference. Hopefully if you are managing your network well, you won’t have lost touch with someone you want to be a reference for you. But even if you are still in contact, it’s a good idea to ask them to coffee and revisit some of the highlights of your time working together–what did you achieve/accomplish/learn? What is your current area of professional development? (Good idea to ask them what they see as a potential area of development for you–after all, it’s likely what they’ll tell the reference.)
  • Give them a heads up. BEFORE you submit their name as a reference, ensure you give them a heads up, reconfirm they are okay with being a reference, give them some insight about this particular position and why you’re pursuing it, where you are in the hiring process, what they might ask, etc. If you have an idea, let them know who might be contacting and when. It’s awkward getting caught out by a reference call when you’re not expecting it/don’t have time to answer.
  • Thank, Thank, and Thank Again. Your references are, in essence, your advocates in the employment selection process. They can make or break you in getting that next job. ALWAYS make sure that you do something to thank them–even if you don’t get the job. When you ask them to be a reference the next time, they’ll remember that nice lunch or bottle of wine and likely be more willing to say yes.


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