The Good Reference

The Good Reference

“Make new friends, but keep the old…one is silver, the other gold.” If you’ve ever pledged Scouts, you will recognize this little ditty. I have certainly committed it to memory. It came up for me recently when I reminded a client about the importance of maintaining positive references. As a former executive search agent, I sometimes marvel at how often this basic principal gets overlooked. Before forging ahead, it is absolutely vital for candidates to secure good references from their old employers. It is an integral part of the hiring process and doing so will only make the candidate look more professional.

Consider the following scenario: You are a clean-cut, well-dressed, mature, driven and intelligent individual. You have followed all the rules in climbing the corporate ladder. Chances are, you graduated with a finance degree from an Ivy League School in less than four years and thereafter with an MBA from one of the finest institutions on the East Coast. Indeed, your resume shines with perfection. You interview for a position that fits you like a glove. During the final round of interviews, you are asked for a list of your job references and you are told that the firm “will be back in touch shortly.” Days and weeks go by without any news. Although you trust there is a logical reason for the radio silence, there’s a very good chance that a reference came back with negative feedback. In most instances, even the smallest hint of a “red flag” for the company profiling you, is alarming enough to prevent an offer being made. What to do?

Begin with the Ending

Before you leave any job, evaluate your current standing with your CEO, managing partner, vice-principals and/or direct reports. Perhaps you might concentrate on dedicating more attention to your current responsibilities? Do you need to stretch yourself more? If you decided to walk out the door tomorrow, would there be “not enough good things to say” about you, or would your colleagues be at a loss to describe your contribution? While you can’t control other people’s impressions of you, you can make every effort to cultivate good relationships. Think about your daily exchange with your professional peers and how that may impact your future reference list.

Think Ahead

Even if you don’t wish to jeopardize your current work situation or expose your desire to move, at least consider the fact that a discussion needs to be shared in order to protect your own future candidacy with a potential new employer. As difficult as it may be, especially if the relationships are strained, dedicate some time to thinking about what you would like to say upon your decision to leave. Planning these delicate conversations in advance, ultimately helps you to present yourself in the best possible light and demonstrates that you are a candidate who should be taken seriously.

Prepare your References

Where possible, check in advance to ensure that your job references are saying complimentary things about you. Sometimes references are checked from industry sources without your knowing. But, in the case that you provide the names, be sure to call your contacts ahead of time and let them know to expect calls from prospective employers. You may even want to conduct a practice drill of your reference list. Have a recruiter or professional within the business call your references to be certain that their recollection of you and your work ability is accurate and positive. This practice drill will help you fine-tune that list. There are also professional services that will check your sources and let you know what employers are saying about you.

Know the Questions

Some typical inquiries might include the following:

  • How would you rate this employee in the areas of oral and written communications?
  • Was Jane a decision maker?
  • Can you share with us any insights on Jane’s personal integrity and interpersonal skills?
  • Where do you see room for improvement?
  • How would you rate Jane’s overall performance?
  • In terms of your work with Jane, what are your thoughts on her management style?
  • Professionally, how does she operate under pressure?
  • What would you coach Jane on?
  • Any specifics on her capacity to execute within her last role?
  • Can you elaborate on Jane’s short and long term planning abilities?
  • Tell me about this candidate’s technical skills and productivity?
  • Were there developmental issues or weaknesses?
  • Was she budget conscious around profit and loss?
  • Did the Jane face a crisis at any time on the job? How did she handle it?
  • What advice would you give to somebody who will be managing this individual?
  • Would you rehire her for your team?

Develop your Target List

Three to five business references of people willing to attest to your work habits and qualifications are normally required. Indicate the most important reference first and then include their name, title, phone number, address and email. Do not use siblings or your best friends as references. Employers want details on how you performed in the workplace from your previous supervisors, co-workers or clients. Add a brief summary of how long the contact has known you, and in what capacity. True references have descriptive examples of project work which you might have been a part of. Short reports of “he was always a heck of a guy” or “she seemed nice” are not as supportive. Only use references who are willing to take the time to help you. At very least, they should be able to answer A) Why they feel you are qualified for the type of position you are applying for and B) their opinion of you both professionally and personally. If you need to remain discrete with your interviewing process, you can always indicate to employers that you prefer to wait until after you have both decided that you are a match for the role, before calling in references.

While it’s virtually impossible to control all aspects of your candidacy when navigating a job search, securing a good reference should not be one of them. Where two candidates are evenly matched for the same job, the “good reference” can often be the deciding factor. A comment often heard in search is, “It is a long life but a small world.” Making friends in the new job has a silver lining, but don’t forget to preserve the old nuggets of gold that you are soon to leave behind.

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