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How to Manage the Tricky World of References

It’s funny how things that are so integral to your job search are often times the most neglected areas of the average candidate’s repertoire.  We all know how important networking is yet we are often too busy to attend events that could directly lead to our next position.  And if you don’t have a well written resume that highlights your accomplishments as well as your job titles, you may well be selling yourself short.  So, what about references?  How important are they in the scheme of things.  Well I would argue that they are integral to the process, not just for the hiring party, but most importantly for you. Potential employers are most interested in what you were able to achieve in your most relevant, previous experience. You should go through the trouble of listing them in your resume but the absolute best way to affirm that those accomplishments are real is for the potential client to hear it in the words of your previous client.  So how do you make sure you “manage” the process?  After all, once you hand over their coordinates, how do know what is going to come out of their mouths when they are contacted.  A single lukewarm reference can destroy your candidacy and negate all the hard work you put in just to get to the offer stage. The following tips are a bit of work, but the confidence it will inspire and the results it will have, are well worth the effort.

Shaking hands with a reference
  1. Be strategic in choosing a potential reference: Make sure the reference can speak coherently to the abilities that matter to the company or individual doing the reference.  If you are applying for specific roles in IT, for example, the reference better be able to comment on your strengths in that area.  And not just your strengths but your accomplishments.    Any vagueness in their answers because they really weren’t directly connected to your work plants more questions in the minds of those conducting the reference, than answers.

  2. Ask their permission (of course):  But asking their permission is just the beginning.  Let them know what kinds of roles you are applying for and most importantly, let them know what accomplishments you are highlighting.  Think of how strong the message is if your reference speaks to an exceptional performance that you yourself highlighted during the interview.  And as a courtesy, let them know when you’ve accepted a job so they know not to expect any more calls.

  3. If you are unsure what a reference might say, ask them:  Don’t be one of those candidates who gets torpedoed by a poisoned reference.  Ask them directly if they would support you in your description of an accomplishment.  If they hesitate, or don’t seem onboard, ask them why.  It’s amazing how many times a conversation after the fact uncovers a misunderstanding on a previous project and just maybe hashing it out turns a negative into a positive.  At the very least, you’ll have a better understanding of who is really in your corner.

  4. Finally, offer to assist your reference in filling in some possible gaps:  You might actually need to coach them in some circumstances.  This could be because of a misunderstanding, as mentioned in the previous point, or maybe a lot has happened since you last worked with them and they need a refresher about your project’s successes. A question that often causes trouble for a reference is “Why did the candidate leave their last position”.    The project came to an end or he/she left to pursue a different opportunity with greater responsibility sounds a lot better than, he/she left for more money!

References are critical and spending time thinking through the process of lining up references, rather than treating it as an afterthought, can be an important element in your job search. How much time do you put into preparing your references?  Could you improve?