Last week, a prospective client sent me a resume with a list of references and their contact information on it. This is a section I do not include on resumes for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, it is essential for all job-seekers to have professional references—people that can vouch for their work. It is also important to make sure your references will respond favorably to certain questions.
Many job-seekers have experienced an interview where a manager said “I’m recommending you for hire.” Then, it doesn’t happen, and you don‘t know why. Most of the time, something changed at the company that had nothing to do with you. It could also happen if you do not receive favorable references—or if the employer could not contact your references. A strategy to minimize this risk is to make certain we choose people that will favorably respond to key questions, and select people that can be contacted readily.
Select references that can answer questions about your work.
Periodically, I receive calls from hiring managers that are checking references for former co-workers. This is a learning experience for me because I find out what employers ask. Among other things, I’m usually asked:
- In what capacity did I work with the candidate,
- What was the job candidate’s role when we worked together,
- How long did we work together or how long did I know the job candidate,
- What do I think the candidate is good at, and
- Would I hire this job candidate again, if I were a hiring manager?
Think about how each person on your list is going to answer these or similar questions via telephone or email. Consider selecting someone else if you are not certain.
In what capacity did I work with the candidate?
Some clients I’ve worked with select references that have not worked with them. They ask personal friends, employment counselors, doctors, and other professionals they’ve done business with. Those people have not, for the most part, used your work product, assessed your work, or done business with you on a day-to-day basis. A reference-checker will know that they may not get useful answers to more detailed questions.
A few months ago, I received a reference call for a friend and former co-worker. About 25 years ago, I was in one of his job search classes. Then we worked together at an employment program after his boss hired me. Later still, we were “cubemates” at another program where we often consulted on resumes we were writing for clients. The hiring manager that called me knew that I could respond to her questions. We spoke for about 30-minutes and she hired my friend.
The call was successful for at least two reasons. First, I had worked closely with the job candidate for several years. Second my friend kept in touch, and gave me a “heads up” regarding the call.
A school principal in Florida also called some time ago with regard to a prospective teacher that also worked alongside me writing client resumes. We worked together for only two or three months. She did not keep in contact with me. As a result, I had more difficulty giving strong answers to the principal’s queries. The teacher did not give me a “heads up” about the reference call.
What was the job candidate’s role when we worked together?
This was an easy question to answer for both co-workers I described above. I worked alongside them and knew what both of them did while they worked with me.
Several times, I have suggested that employment program clients not use me as a reference because I cannot answer this question. Often, I met with them only once or twice. We discussed their jobs, but I have not worked alongside them.
It’s tough for personal friends you have never worked with to answer questions about your work for similar reasons. Friends can speak about your character, but have no first-hand knowledge of your work.
How long did you work together of how long have you known the job candidate?
The best reference, in my opinion, is someone you worked with for years and have known even longer. A reference that helped me land my last full-time job worked with me for about five years in the 1990s. We were on committees together, reviewed each-other’s work on a few occasions, and worked in adjacent cubes for much of the time. Today, we still talk or text periodically.
It is best, of course, to put prospective employers in touch with people you worked with more recently, though. LinkedIn and other social media make it easier to locate and maintain contact with former coworkers. References that know you well may call or message you when a prospective employer contacts them. They do not have to let you know since these conversations are presumably confidential.
What do I think the candidate is good at?
Once again, “what is the candidate good at” underlines the importance of selecting references that know your work. The challenge is that they do not necessarily know the skills required for the job you are applying for.
The best approach for this question is to let your references know what kind of job you are applying for, and the skills that are required, so the reference can think about their responses. For example, my friend from the 1990s talked about my experience with diversity programs when he got a call from the HR manager at employment program for people with disabilities that planned to hire me as a coach.
I was asked a similar question about my co-worker that was applying for a job as a schoolteacher in Orlando, FL. The two of us had to teach resume writing and online job search to adults on public assistance, so I was able to address her ability to engage very challenging students.
Would I hire this candidate again?
This, I feel, is the most important question a reference-checker can ask. If a former co-worker or manager does not want to work with the candidate again, why should the hiring manager want to work with the candidate? You are no doubt confident that the people you include as references on your job applications are going to say they would hire you again, or you would not list them. Just be aware prospective employers will usually ask this question.
Have more than three references ready.
Job applications usually ask candidates to provide contact information for three professional references. I recommend that job-seekers select more than three references. There are two reasons for this. First, more than one potential employer may call or email at about the same time for a reference check. Your potential reference may not want to answer the same questions repeatedly from different people. Second, a reference may not be available at the time an employer calls. For example, a professor I used as a reference for a prestigious summer internship was unavailable, I later learned, because he was “out of the country.” He did not return the reference checker’s call. This may be the reason I was not selected for the internship.
Prospective employers will sometimes check with you if they cannot reach a reference on the list. Have additional references available when this happens. My recommendation is that you have seven potential references available. Rotate them on your job applications to minimize the chance any one of them will be overwhelmed by requests. This also allows you to substitute if you are notified that a reference cannot be reached.
The advent of social media such as LinkedIn opens new ways former employers, co-workers, and clients can attest to your skills and performance. LinkedIn allows connections to post recommendations and endorsements. We’ll cover these in future posts.
For now, it’s fair to say classic reference checks will continue. Confidential conversations between hiring managers and people you have worked with in the past may always be one of the best ways to gather information, in a perspective employer’s view.
We do not put “references available upon request” on resumes anymore, but that does not reduce their importance.
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