A potential employer is ready to make an offer for which you are heavily considering. However, before the offer is made the potential employer wants to check references. It is at this point your future employment and your judgment hinges on what others say about you. I indicate judgment because you as the prospective employee choose your references, and choosing poorly can reflect poorly on you in multiple ways and will likely cost yourself the position. Keep in mind a reference should not shed light on anything new, it should ONLY reaffirm and reassure what a prospective employer is already thinking about you. Your reference may not be able to secure the position for you, but they most assuredly can lose the position for you especially with a lackluster and/or bad reference. This is why, in an age of changing jobs multiple times throughout ones career, one should maintain (keep in contact with), a reference from each of your previous employers. And since the best reference is a supervisor, this will mean maintaining a positive and pro-active relationship with your former employer. So whatever you do, DON’T take your references for granted and don’t burn bridges.
A prospective employer or recruiter, depending on who is doing the reference, will expect the reference to be responsive and to provide a positive reference for you. So it pays to know what your reference will say.
Here are a few tips to ensure your references are an asset:
• Speak to each reference prior to them being called. Make sure they know who is calling, what position they are in, and the position you are vying for. When speaking to them ask the reference what they are going to say. At this point you may want to provide subtle reminders of key accomplishments and projects you were on that they can speak about. References usually want specifics and since your employer may manage many people or some time may have passed since you worked there, you should not be surprised if they don’t remember everything you did.
• Provide your references with a current copy of your resume. The person calling the reference may use your resume as a guide for specific questions about your work and performance and you don’t want your reference to be surprised by something you have on your resume.
• As diplomatically as possible, discuss with them your strengths and weaknesses from your perspective. They will know what is in your mind and to the extent that they agree, will relay the same message to possible employers.
• Make sure you request current contact details from your reference.
• If possible, after securing a new position, try to attain a supervisory reference from your current employer. While peers and subordinates have their place, their opinion will definitely not carry as much weight, nor can they speak about your experience from a more strategic perspective.
• Asking your current employer for a reference can be very tricky. Even though they may be happy that you are moving on and hopefully moving up in your career they can also be annoyed that you are leaving them short-handed. This is a great time to assure your former employer that you enjoyed your time working with them and praise them on the amount you learned under their tutelage. This will hopefully smooth over any ill feelings they initially have. Also, let them know that you would like to remain in touch and hope that there will be future opportunities to work together in the future.
• If your departure from a company was not a smooth one or had underlying reasons, that is ok and you should still follow the same procedure about getting a reference. We have interviewed many candidates who didn’t fit appropriately into a role or had a personality clash with their boss and ultimately, it was determined that parting ways was the right answer. The prospective employer should not hear that story from your reference; it should come from you. The reference would validate this story. Surprisingly to many, this will not necessarily exclude you from being considered for a job. If that situation is different from the position for which you are applying, it should have no bearing. The key is to prepare the person calling for what they will hear.
Conversely, if you are asked to give a reference, do so willingly and follow through in a timely manner as your former colleague’s next career step may rely upon it. Remember that your professional reputation as well as your relationship with the person for whom you are a reference is at stake and by giving a false, overly positive, or overly negative review can ultimately harm your reputation and your relationships. Make sure you provide the details that would be critical to you if you were making the new hire.
At the end of the day, references are one facet of a complex decision process to hire a candidate. By fostering those previous relationships which would provide such references to you in the future, you will set yourself up success when switching jobs.