Somewhere in the vast landscape of job hunting, someone convinced job seekers that references are something that employers no longer check. I mean, after all, you’ve interviewed twice, got a free lunch, and even a shiny new pen with the company’s name on it. Why would they care about what other people have to say about you?
Don’t believe the hype. Truth is, this is one of the most important parts of the recruiting process. You can sell yourself all day, but what did you REALLY do at your last job? Did you really write that software that saved the company millions of dollars or runs every portable music player in the universe, or was it a team effort of which you really only tweaked the existing code?
Lately I have a had a ton of candidates make it through the interview rounds, only to give questionable references and thus shut the door to an opportunity. Here are a few common mistakes in giving references, all preventable if the candidate took a little more initiative when it comes to this critical part of the hiring process.
SUBMITTING YOUR DRINKING BUDDY, MOTHER, ETC.
The days of the personal or character references are over. If there is one assumption any recruiter or company HR person can make it’s that your friends and family aren’t going to sell you out. This mostly happens with junior level recruits (usually right out of college), but I’ve seen senior level folks do it as well. If you are one of the rare people whose only work history happens to be working for family or friends let them know ahead of time not to talk about the time you totally got drunk on spring break and ended up with the girl from the wet t-shirt contest. Those aren’t the “closing skills” that will impress your potential boss. Instead, ask them to keep the conversation about your work performance, work ethic, etc. This leads me to my second point....
PREPPING YOUR WITNESS
So you’ve given me three professional references. I dial you last supervisor’s cell phone only to find out it’s off or has been disconnected. No sweat, I’ll just send them an email. And that bounces back. Now what? I move on to the second person. Luckily their phone works, but their first response is “Who?” and they proceed to spend 5 minutes digging through their brain/desk drawer for any idea as to who the hell you are. Their recollection of you and your work is vague at best and chances are they can’t recall if you’re male or female. Seeing how poorly unprepared you were I won’t even bother with the third reference. At this point there’s a fifty-fifty chance he or she is even alive.
So what do I want to hear? I want them to tell me that they were expecting my call and would be more than happy to talk to me about your time together at Acme Widgets. When you call your references double-check all their contact info, ask for the best way to reach them, and be sure to explain to the them where you are applying, the position you’re applying for, and what kind of work you’ll be doing. This will help direct the conversation and make it more painless. We don’t want to have to explain to 3-5 different people what you’ll be doing or have to probe for answers related to the job you’re applying for. Oh, and do this BEFORE you send your references to the person who will be checking them. Sometimes someone will be on vacation, changed there number/email address, or won’t be a good reference simply because they really hated your haircut and found those seductive emails you were sending the UPS guy.
NO DATED REFERENCES
While we all understand you can’t give out your current boss as a reference (this can make for a really uncomfortable conversation) there are still plenty of quality references you can use. The first thing I usually tell candidates is to keep your references as current as possible. Look to current co-workers as well as supervisors/managers/coworkers from your last three jobs. Even former coworkers that have left the company you worked at together make better references than “stale” ones. In other words don’t give me the guy who worked with you designing Sega Genesis games. Chances are I’m not hiring you to use 20+ year old technology. I want to assume that you’ve evolved and I want to assess how the “current you” performs. Would your current spouse/significant other liked you ten or twenty years ago? Likewise, employers hire you for what you can do today, not how well you once used now-outdated technology.
IT'S OK TO GET CREATIVE BUT....
Be careful who you use. I’ve seen candidates use former customers who may like the person a lot but has issues with the company they work for and therefore have trouble focusing on how the candidate (not the product/service) performed. I’ve also seen people use vendors who outed them to their current employers due to more established relationships with people higher up in the organization. If you choose to use one of the above make sure that you don’t violate a non-compete, non-disclosure, or employment agreement. Doing so can create a headache for you, your new company, and your (former) customers and vendors.
In summary treat references with as much care and attention as you would an interview. Look at it as a third interview in which even without saying a word you can still set yourself apart from your competition. Be sure to submit references that can attest to your professional performance, make sure they know someone will be calling and what they’ll be calling about, and make sure they’ve recently worked with you using the latest technology, theories, techniques, etc. If you’re going to use someone outside of the companies you’ve worked for be aware of the possible Pandora’s Box(s) you could open. If all goes well hopefully your references can help seal the deal for you. Just be aware that you now owe them lunch.
ANY ADVICE, CRITICISM, LITTLE NUGGETS I FORGOT? COMMENT BELOW.