The Job Reference Game

Posted by The Editors on May 6, 2011
The Job Reference Game
You will probably be asked for references before you receive a job offer—sometimes as early as at the screening interview, sometimes when you interview with the hiring manager, and sometimes only when an offer is extended "subject to a satisfactory check of references."

It isn't unusual, however, for people to be hired without a reference check, particularly if they come to the organization through a referral, if they've previously held a part-time job at the company, or if the hiring manager is in a hurry.  

Get Permission
In any case, your references are valuable to you, and you need to treat them with respect. Obviously, it's a good idea to begin, early in your campaign, by asking potential references for permission to give their names. If they grant it, express your appreciation, offer to send them your résumé, and, if possible, meet with them or discuss your campaign strategy with them by phone.  

You should try to develop a list of five or six references, although you may use only two or three of them in any one situation. These might be former managers, professors, friends of your family who know you well (but not family members), or people who know you through community service. Ministers, rabbis, and the like qualify if they can attest to your service to the community or the congregation or otherwise provide insight into your manner of overcoming obstacles.  

Try to develop a list that can provide various perspectives on your accomplishments, and remember that what hiring managers are trying to assess is how you will perform and behave on the job.  

Maintaining Goodwill
Because your references are doing you a favor, you don't want to abuse their goodwill. This means making sure they're not called too frequently. If they have been called three times already, and you need to use them again, you should call them, thank them for their efforts on your behalf, apologize for any inconvenience, explain the circumstances, and ask whether they are still willing to help. This will help you avoid having your references go flat.  

You should also take steps you can to prevent their overuse in the first place. If you're asked for references early in the interviewing cycle, you can mention who you would use and what they can confirm about you, but say you would prefer that they not be contacted until a later stage in your discussions. Explain that you want to be fair to your references by not having them called too often and that you are having discussions with several organizations.  

When the time does come to provide contact information, say that you wish to call the references first to provide them some understanding of the position you are discussing and to introduce the person who is calling.  

This approach has multiple advantages. It gives you a chance to prime your references. It shows the hiring manager that you treat people with respect. It delays the reference checking until late in the process when the company already has decided you are the right choice. And it indicates that you are giving consideration to several companies and positions—raising your worth as a candidate.  

Making the First Call
When you do reach the stage of providing contact information, be sure to call each of the references you will give. Explain to them who might be calling, what the position is, why it relates to your goals, and what you think the person calling might be interested in knowing. You can also request that the reference confirm or emphasize certain characteristics.  

A week later, ask your references if they received a call. If so, find out what the caller seemed to be interested in, and seek recommendations from your reference on what clarifications you should make with the employer.  

For example, your reference might indicate that the caller said, "He seems likable, but I'm not sure he's persistent enough to follow through when the going gets tough." The reference might not have been able to address the caller's concern based on what he knew about you, but you—now knowing the concern—could find a way to introduce more evidence regarding your persistence when the going gets tough.  

If your references have not received a call after a week, check in with the hiring manager to see if there is anything you can do to make it easier to get through to your references—find out when they will be available or ask them to call the hiring manager on your behalf.  

Bear in mind, though, that the hiring manager may already be satisfied that you're the right person. Or on the other hand, the manager may be having discussions with another candidate and holding you in reserve. Either way, your thoughtful persistence will leave a positive impression.  

Dealing with Unfavorable References
If you must provide a particular reference—your most recent manager, for example—but feel that the person may give you a mixed review, have a discussion with that person.  

Find out what he or she sees as your strengths and weaknesses. Try to show them how you are making the most use of your strengths and that you are either working on your weaknesses or choosing a path that doesn't emphasize them.  

Ask for the person's own suggestions. It's pretty unusual for a person to give a weak endorsement of someone who is listening to his or her constructive suggestions.  
At the same time, it's important for you to prepare a hiring manager to hear an unfavorable reference if you think this may be a problem. By doing so, you get to tell your side of the story, and the manager won't be hearing for the first time that someone thinks you made a mistake or didn't handle your job or a particular situation well. Here's an example:  

"There is one reference I'm giving you that may not be as favorable as the others. Let me explain why. When I was hired by Security Services, I was told to notify my supervisor immediately if a dangerous situation seemed to be developing in the mall. I did so when after the July Fourth event, the crowds seemed to be getting thick, and a few troublemakers were starting to stir things up. I immediately told my supervisor of my concerns about the developing situation, but he took a wait-and-see attitude. Later, when trouble broke out, he seemed to want to pin the blame on me for not telling him soon enough. I don't wish to make an issue of it, but I thought you should understand some of the background."  

Your ability to follow through and address outstanding issues will impress not only the recruiting manager, but also your references—smoothing the way for your next job search.

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