Treat Your References Right...Or Else

By Karen (Hollinger) Huller, CPRW

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Cliffhanger by EverJeanAre you treating your references as an afterthought during the job hunt? 

Why are references important?

In this competitive economy good references can mean the difference between landing the job and receiving a rejection letter. Think about it. If an employer has two equally qualified job candidates, they will depend on references to make a final decision. Good references will highlight your achievements, verify your skills, and generally strengthen your strong points. A bad reference will keep you from landing, not just now, but with an employer throughout your career.

A 2012 CareerBuilder survey revealed 80% of employers contact references when evaluating potential employees. In short, references are critical and treating them right is essential to career advancement.

Keep in contact & get permission

If someone is on your list of references and you haven’t contacted them in years, don’t assume it is okay to pass their information on to an employer without notification. A former supervisor or co-worker may have agreed to give you a reference at one time but years may have passed since then. They could have completely forgotten about the agreement. Or worse, you may have just added them to your list without notifying them originally.

Whatever your situation is, you must ask them if they would be comfortable giving you a good recommendation. There is a BIG difference between asking someone to give you a recommendation and asking them to give you a GOOD recommendation! Many make that mistake and then months pass and they wonder why they make it to the reference stage without receiving an offer. At that point, it makes sense to do a reference audit (ask a friend or hire a reputation management firm if you think there is the potential slander so that it is properly documented.)

Before your job interview notify all the people on your reference list that you will be giving their name to an employer. Let your references know the name of the employer and the job title you are applying for. Also, ask your references how and when they prefer to be contacted. Notifying your contacts in advance of an interview will ensure they aren’t caught off guard by a sudden call, are still employed at the organization listed, and that their information is generally up-to-date. You’ll also want to make sure that they won’t be on vacation when an employer wants to reach them. If an employer can’t reach your reference, they may suspect that they are purposefully ignoring the phone – not a good sign. After several years, especially, no matter how memorable you would like to believe you are, people can forget. How do you think it would impact your chances of a job if one or more of your references didn’t remember who you are?  

I know a writer who is not particularly good with keeping in touch with her references. After a job interview she was surprised when her e-mail inquiry bounced back. She did some research and learned that her former editor had gotten married since they had last spoken. The editor had changed her e-mail address to reflect her new last name. Additionally, her previous employer, a weekly newspaper, had changed locations. The information was corrected before the list of references was given to her employer. She could have saved herself from potentially not getting the job by taking the time to keep in touch with her references before the interview.

Making sure your references are effective

Your mission in the interview process is to promote your value and mitigate any perceived risk in hiring you. The reference stage is used by the employer to uncover any risks that may not have surfaced during the qualification or interview stages. Make sure that your references are going to refrain from raising any risk flags and that they will effectively promote your value. Send them a copy of your current résumé and the job descriptions. This will help remind them of your experience, skills and accomplishments. Again, it may have been years since you’ve last spoken to them and a little refresher never hurts.

Be proactive and assertive - ask your references to promote specific skills and achievements based on what you ideally want to do, also known as brand validation. They will most likely appreciate your guidance in preparing them for the reference calls. Of course, some may even suggest that YOU write your own letter of recommendation that they would happily sign. (NOTE: This does not preclude them from being called as a reference. Recruiters and human resources professionals become more skeptical of people for good reason with greater experience and may still want to speak with them directly.) We have written many of these letters with input from our clients and references have been happy and relieved to be able to assist without having to invest too much time in what is usually a time of high transition for them, as well.

If possible, try to build several different reference lists. As a general rule, three professional references are usually enough, but having three or four times as many can help you avoid burning your list out. Some references may be better resources to talk about experiences that have specific applicability to certain jobs. Though personal references are usually not called, and therefore should not be one of your three, consider adding members of organizations for which you volunteer.

Don't damage your relationship

One of the most important ways you can treat your references right is to respect their privacy. Don’t include their names and contact information on your résumé, especially if you are posting it on a job board or using an online application. Instead, take your list of references with you to the job interview. If the job you’re applying for requires you to list references online, review the site’s privacy policy. If their policy is unsatisfactory, you may have to weigh the risks a privacy breach and the rewards of the potential job. (Clint Robertson’s article “Practice Safe Searches: Protecting Your Personal Information During Your Job Hunt,” on Career Attraction has some great privacy rules to follow.) While we are on the subject of online sites, don’t put their names or contact information on your LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+ profiles or any other public domain. The last thing your contacts need is a constant barrage of notifications and spam e-mails from the various social networking sites.

You should be aware, also, that recruiting firms often use references as client prospects. Sometimes, their names and information go right from your application or document into a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) database. If a recruiter asks for references, make sure it is because they are presenting you for an actual position and ask them to put IN WRITING that they will only use your contacts as references.

You should also be aware that recruiters and prospective employers can take it upon themselves to reach out to your previous supervisors, whether you list them as references or not. If you have a former employer who you are not sure will give you a good recommendation, you may, again, opt to have a friend perform a reference audit or hire a reputation management firm.

Company rules on references

Let me address a very common problem these days – company policies against providing references. Due to litigation or the threat thereof, many companies have been preventing supervisors from providing references. Even if a reference doesn’t mean to, they may say something that could prevent you from getting an offer. That is a big responsibility, and many managers will stay in compliance with this policy. Some, however, may agree to speak “off the record” on your behalf, if you have that kind of relationship. If not, a creative solution could be to create a document with excerpts from your performance evaluations sans proprietary information and asking your former manager to formally validate it with a signature. He or she may want to run it by the legal department or human resources first. If neither of these are options, put the name of the human resources contact on the list of references and designate them as “Employment Verification Contacts.” Even the companies with these policies will, at least, verify your title and dates of employment.

References can either be a valuable competitive tool or the obstacle between you and your next epic career step. Don’t overlook the importance of properly preparing your references. The work involved in a job transition is daunting enough; no one wants to work in vein or continually have to start over. 

About the author:

Karen Huller, author of the upcoming book Laser-sharp Career Focus: Pinpoint your Purpose and Passion in 30 Days, is founder of Epic Careering, an employment and career branding firm specializing in the optimizing power of social media, as well as JoMo Rising, LLC, a game development company that turns work into play. While the bulk of her 20 years of professional experience has been within the recruiting and employment industry, her publications, presentations and coaching also draw from experience in performance, broadcasting, marketing and sales. Karen was one of the first LinkedIn trainers and is known widely for her ability to identify new trends in hiring and personal marketing. Her clients recommend her for her compassion, candor and intuitive insight. She is a Certified Professional Résumé Writer with a Bachelor of Art in Communication Studies and Theater from Ursinus College and is committed to being a coach who is always being coached to maximize results for her clients.


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