A few weeks ago I wrote about references, how to prepare your reference list so that you’re ready. In this post I want to talk about serving as a reference for someone else.
If someone asks you to serve as a reference for them, before you say yes ask yourself, “Can I talk positively about this person’s work experience, professional skills and/or personality? Would what I honestly think about this person help them to secure a new job?” Unless you can emphatically say yes to these questions, politely decline to be a reference.
Serving as a reference is often a balancing act. Most people have some things they did well and some things they need to work on. You want to be able to give as much of the good information as you can while only providing the less-good information when required. You may choose to quality parts of your reference with words like generally, usually, or sometimes. That way you leave room between the lines that this person might not be perfect.
In my mind, the most important thing about being a reference is honesty. No one will benefit from you giving false information about another person. Let’s say Bob has horrible attendance – maybe you even fired him for it. Then someone calls for a reference check on Bob and asks about his attendance. Being honest may keep Bob from getting the job, but lying about Bob’s attendance may not help him either. Possibly he gets the job and then gets fired again for attendance. Nobody wins in that situation.
From your employer’s perspective (if you and the job seeker worked together – especially if you were the supervisor) what is critical is that what you say is consistent with the employees’ personnel record. There is no law that prohibits you from giving negative feedback during a reference check. The problems come in if the negative information you provide is not supported by the records. Back to Bob and his horrible attendance. Let’s presume that Bob had horrible attendance and you fired him for it. Then a recruiter calls and asks about Bob’s attendance. You reply honestly and that ultimately you fired him because of it. You were honest – so no problems, right?
The problem comes when what you said is not consistent with the file. Maybe Bob was an exempt employee who did not fill out a time sheet. There is no written record of his poor attendance. You didn’t really write him up for attendance – you just talked to him a few times and then when you were fed up you fired him. In his last performance appraisal you checked “satisfactory” on the attendance line because you didn’t want to get into it at the time – and he had been doing better the few weeks before the review. Now we have a situation where the facts – his attendance was horrible and you fired him for it – disagree with the formal record. If Bob were to file a defamation charge, you (and your company) would not be able to defend your comments.
Serving as a reference is important and if you can do so in a manner that can help someone get a new job, I encourage you to do so. But, be honest with yourself and the recruiter and follow your mother’s advice, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
This is going well. You’ve cleared the phone screen, had an interview, and done okay on some testing. You’re feeling pretty good. Then the recruiter turns to you and says, “Can you give me some references?” Now what!?!
In a perfect world you’d reach into your portfolio (or pad, briefcase, what-have-you) and pull out a professional reference list. This would have the same look and feel as your resume and cover letter. On the list would be three to five names with their job titles, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses. You’d hand that to the recruiter and say “here you go.”
It doesn’t always work like that, but that’s your goal. The hard question is, who are those people?
As you begin you job search you need to start lining up your references. You want to build a database of people, ideally 10 to 15. Find people who can talk about your work and work habits in a sincerely positive way. You need a few supervisors who can talk about you as an employee. You need a few coworkers who have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with you. You need a few subordinates (if you’ve had any) who can describe what kind of a boss you are. You could also use a few customers – either internal or external – people who you served in some capacity. An executive mentor would be nice to talk about how you are improving your skills. Finally you need some personal references – maybe a college professor, pastor, good friend, or someone you’ve volunteered with (or for).
You need to approach each of these people with the same request, “can you help me?” Tell them that you are looking for a job and that you’d like them to serve as a reference for you. Talk about the types of things they might say about you. Make sure to gather their personal contact information. Then build your list. Put everybody on that page, organize them by category – boss, peer, subordinate, etc. Then file that away (do not print that version).
You can then go about your search being prepared. When you schedule a face-to-face interview or get a request for references then you being the next phase. Examine both your list of references and the job you are applying for, and pick the references that can provide feedback that is most closely linked to what that company needs to know about you. Delete the others and print that reference list of three to five people. One last thing, before you hand that list to the recruiter, send an email to each person on the list telling them that you will be giving their name to XYZ Company. That way they can expect to be contacted by the company and be prepared to answer the phone or recognize an odd email address.
As with all facets of your job search the key is to be prepared. Solicit your references, get them from all facets of your professional experience, know what they are going to say, warn them before you use them, and present them to the hiring manager in a fashion that is professional and consistent with your other search documents. You can do that – now let’s get out and find that job!
In a future post I’ll talk about the other side of references – being one for someone else.