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A Brief Guide to Personal References

Making the most out of your reference section

As part of the consulting I do, I have occasion to do or commission personal reference checking on candidates. In the last several months, I have run into a number of situations any job seeker should try to avoid.

The Setup

A very aggressive and seemingly capable candidate promptly provided me with a list of references at my request. As I made the calls and received rave reviews on the candidate, I started to get a sinking feeling. The responses were too uniform, the praise too glowing. There were no negatives. I was quite certain I had been set up and felt the references had been coached on what to say.

The Stale

In another case, a candidate gave me three references: one representing a recent consulting client and the other two going back five years to an employer. All three references were positive. I had no reason to doubt the candidate’s character, but the two references from the previous employer could not recall specific examples or details. They were trying to be helpful, but in the end, weren’t doing a great service to the candidate — their experience with him was too stale.

The Unavailable

During the summer, there was a candidate I was very enthused about. She had worked for one employer for several years, and it was really her only relevant professional reference. However, the company had a policy of not giving subjective references. Not only was the reference hard to reach, but she also couldn’t tell me anything of real value. I wanted to push this candidate forward but couldn?t without solid information from the reference.

Choosing your references is one of those career-management tasks that doesn’t take a lot of time to do well, but it pays off hugely.

Why Employers Want References

All referencing is based on one premise: Past behavior and performance is the best predictor of future behavior and performance. When employers check references, they are hoping to verify and learn more about the following:

1. You are who you say you are.

2. You worked where you say you worked, have the qualifications you say you have, etc.

3. Your character, trustworthiness, reputation and credibility.

4. How you have performed and what you have accomplished, including specific examples.

5. Proof of relevant experience with specific examples.

6. Proof of relevant skills.

7. Your management and interpersonal style.

8. Whether you are fit for the hiring company, team or specific manager.

9. Warning flags, like inconsistencies, where different people say conflicting things about you.

10. Lessons for how to best manage you when you join the team.

Establish a Sound Referencing Strategy

Knowing how prospective employers will use references is key to choosing them wisely. Try these 13 guidelines so the references you provide will do their job to help you secure a position.

1. Create a list of quality references.

2. Demonstrate that you have nothing to hide and are comfortable about your past work experience.

3. Make it easy for the person checking your references.

4. Be sure your reference list is up to date, including all contact information.

5. Regularly maintain the relationship with each of your references.

6. Have at least two references who are eager to talk honestly and enthusiastically about you.

7. Include at least one reference from a superior, preferably one from each job you’ve held.

8. At least two of your references should be peers.

9. Include at least one subordinate reference, if applicable.

10. Have at least one written testimonial from a delighted customer or employer.

11. Have a back-up reference list, including a manager, peer, subordinate, and customer or supplier, should you be asked for more.

12. If you are currently employed when the reference checking takes place, be clear who the prospective employer can and can’t call for reasons of confidentiality.

13. Notify your references that they will be receiving a call and identify the person calling. If possible, relate the nature of the position to them. Those who care about your career are going to be more valuable to you when they can speak about their knowledge of you in relation to a specific opportunity.

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