10 Ways to Avoid a Referee Disaster Zone

By Catherine Cunningham - Career Specialist - Australia

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Bound by confidentiality, I wasn’t able to reveal to my client that her boss thought poorly of her and was glad that her role had been made redundant. All I could do was hint that this was NOT a good idea.

It didn’t work. My client ‘Lu’ was insistent that her boss would say good things about her and used her name in the four or so jobs she was then interviewed for. Lu was a real natural at interviews and I expected her to pick up a job quite quickly but she was unsuccessful in all of them. Finally, a recruiter told her bluntly that her former boss was ‘stabbing her in the back’ and destroying her chances.

This remains my most vivid memory of how important it is to manage your referees properly. Yet, a 2018 article by Northeastern University in the US stated that many job seekers regard references as an afterthought even though, ‘Eight in 10 HR executives report  consistently contacting employee references and 73 percent of employers indicate that the references had a significant impact on their decision to hire.’

Now, I’d never considered writing a blog about this topic, thinking that it would be boring to write and to read. Then I noticed that our 60-second video on the topic was arousing a lot of interest and I also recalled how important my clients found this discussion to be.  So here goes with 10 tips so you don’t fall at the last hurdle.

Tip 1: Choose carefully

The general advice is to have five or six referees in your repertoire, but offer two or three, matched carefully to each job.

Typically, you are expected to use your current boss (or most recent boss, if you have already left). Sometimes, this isn’t possible. You may not wish your current boss to be aware that you are planning to leave or you might think that she will not report favourably on you.  

In this instance, you need to find someone else senior to you who can comment in detail on your work. Or, select a boss from a previous position.

In some instances, key clients and associates are appropriate, as a backup to your boss. It’s not OK to use one from your personal life e.g. a pastor or sports coach, unless you’re straight out of school or have no work experience.

Tip 2: Seek explicit agreement from your referees

The best option is to set up a quick meeting with your referee. Show them exactly what you are laying claim to in your résumé, line by line.

Watch their body language for any signs of discomfort. Many people are not brave enough to tell you to your face that they don’t agree with your claims. They may nod and smile and then contradict you later when asked by the prospective employer. It is better to assess their real response here and respond accordingly e.g. by perhaps choosing a different referee.

Tip 3: Master the process

Once you’re comfortable that your referees will represent you well, provide them with a copy of your résumé and brief them about each and every role. Email them the position description so that they can review it and think about what they might say in advance.

If the referee lives overseas, the reference checker needs to be comfortable with setting up a Zoom/phone call.  Provide the reference checker with appropriate contact times in your local time zone so that your referee is not dragged from their sleep by an unsophisticated caller.

Tip 4: Don’t include referee details on your résumé

Unless you are specifically required to do so in the application process, use the phrase, ‘referees supplied upon request’ or simply do not refer to them at all.

It’s a matter of politeness. You may end up sending out LOTS of copies of your résumé as you apply for different roles and register with different recruiters/job boards.

That means your referees could be contacted at any time without you being able to alert them. Imagine they are out shopping and receive such a call, out of the blue. The first time, it’s a minor nuisance but each subsequent occasion is likely to annoy them more and more. It’s not a good idea to annoy your referees.

Tip 5: Manage exceptions

There are times when you either want or have to include referee details on your résumé.

Generally, the application process for most government and Not For Profit roles requires that you supply these details. In this instance, try to omit the contact details. If you must include contact details, request that they advise you before contacting the referee.

I’ve also worked with people who have outstanding/famous referees and they want the hiring party to be aware (and be impressed). In this instance, they detail the name and position of all referees but they omit contact details.

Tip 6: Present details well

Don’t supply incorrect or out-of-date contact details. Create a separate document. Use the same font and layout as per your résumé and space the content so that it sits well on the page.

One of the best examples I saw was from an Executive client. For each referee, he clearly outlined the relationship and the type of professional interaction they had. 

Tip 7: Contact your referees immediately

You cannot possibly know when the employer will start the reference checking process. One of my clients flew to Darwin for a job interview. By the time he got back to Adelaide, the employer had already called his referees. So, phone your referees immediately after the interview.

Tip 8: Corral your referees

You don’t want to tell your referees what to say but because much time may have passed since you both worked together, jogging their memory about genuine achievements could be helpful to them as well as you.

Here’s the sort of thing that you could say…

‘Hi, Suzie.  XXX from XZY company has just interviewed me for the ZZZ role I mentioned to you and they’ve asked for your details, so they’re likely to call.’

Now, if you know Suzie very well and have a close relationship with her, you’d then say, ‘Suzie, in the interview, they were focusing on customer service, the ability to influence others and leadership. Do you remember the time when we had that terrible problem with our largest client and I …’ and then you prompt Suzie to remember a specific example of when you showed excellent customer service. And you would go on to remind her about specifics relating to the other two qualities.

If your relationship with Suzie is more formal, you would be much more considered in how you frame this reminder, but the aim is nevertheless to prompt.

You might also try to manage the common ‘Tell us about a negative’ question if it came up in the interview by alerting Suzie to how you handled this. Your aim is to make sure that the reference checker only hears one negative, not two or three. This is a delicate matter, though, and needs careful consideration as to whether you risk it.

Tip 9: Avoid written testimonials

It smacks of desperation for a professional or an Executive to turn up to an interview clutching some fading piece of paper from an earlier life. Don’t do it!

Instead, use the testimonial function on LinkedIn to your advantage – you can be sure that most employers will check out your profile there. If you have six or more testimonials it adds weight to your interview claims.

For front line or graduate positions, it is more acceptable to present written references and often gives the applicant a bit of confidence in the interview. By the way, it is very difficult these days to get a written testimonial from an employer, for various reasons, so written references are becoming a non-issue.

Tip 10: Tackle awkward ‘referees’

There might be an occasion when a prospective employer contacts someone outside of your referee list and then confronts you with unfavourable feedback.

Don’t lose your cool. Think of something positive to say about the ‘referee’ and then offer a calm but persuasive rebuttal.  Something like this…’John and I did some strong work together on introducing LEAN techniques into the company. After that, we differed on the best way to get our team to follow through. I’m comfortable with the approach I was recommending.’

Then, provide a ‘countering’ referee from the same organisation who can back up your comments.

Do I even need to say this?

Maintain contact with your referees. They too move to different roles in different organisations and you may never know when you need to call on them again.

Say thank you, regardless of the outcome and keep them up to date. In today’s competitive job market, where it’s easy to get lost among virtual stacks of résumés, quality referees could be the difference between job and no job

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