References. Applicants and interviewers worry about them, don’t know how to choose them, to use them, to check them, and as a result, lose out on opportunity, insight, and information both could benefit from receiving.
Job hunters need references, good references, because bad ones or those casually chosen can sink an opportunity like a rock. References should be chosen from the pool of individuals who have directly or indirectly supervised their work, and are willing to speak about and respond to questions about performance, strengths, skills, and the behaviors and attitudes they’ve projected.
Job hunters should screen references as carefully as prospective employers screen applicants. Here’s an example of what I mean: Joe Applicant calls and schedules a visit with Ms. Smith, his former boss and intended reference. He describes the position that he seeks and asks if she considers the opportunity a good match for his abilities. Joe listens closely to what Ms. Smith says and how she says it. If she’s positive, specific about why she believes the match to be a good one, encourages his candidacy, and agrees to serve as a reference, Joe’s has a positive resource on his side.
But what if Ms. Smith responds differently? What if she hesitates, equivocates, is unenthusiastic and obviously uncomfortable. Joe should ask her to clarify her reasons for hesitation.
“Ms Smith, I noticed that you got pretty quiet when I described the
position that I’ve applied for. You’ve always leveled with me in the past, so I hope you will now. What are your concerns?”
Ms. Smith will probably tell you. As a result, you can reconsider: the position might not be a good match, or Ms. Smith, your former boss, might not be reading the situation correctly. Bottom line: get more information. That means, ask your other potential references for feedback.
If Mr. Jones and Ms. Davis agree with Ms. Smith that you’re not well matched to the job, ask them for descriptions of jobs that better suit your skills and abilities. If, however, Jones and Davis think it’s a great match, and disagree with Smith, take Ms. Smith off your list of references for this opportunity, despite her having agreed to serve.
Once you secure your references, keep them in the loop on a need to know basis. Tell them when they are likely to get calls, from whom, and about what. The reference is likely to mirror the applicant’s confidence and enthusiasm about the job, so be mindful of that when calling with an update.
Employers should take the time and effort to check references on their would-be employees. When employers ask the right questions, references can provide important information and insight as to a candidate’s past performance.
Employers need a plan before they place a call. They need to know what they’re looking for in the right candidate; the current responsibilities, skill sets, innate strengths and personality traits that are essential to the position’s success. They need to outline significant challenges the incumbent confronts because the new employee will have to deal with the old issues and new ones, yet to be defined. (i.e. falling sales, rising costs, difficult bosses, disgruntled employees, unrelenting turnover, draconian cuts, unexpected and unplanned for organizational change.)
The employer should ask open- ended questions and ask for anecdotal examples that describe the candidate’s significant accomplishments, strengths and areas of development. Close-ended questions should be limited to those regarding employment dates, salary history, and re-employment.
The employer’s questions should be specific to the workplace, staying away from questions that are considered illegal and inappropriate when asked of an applicant: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and age.
Some companies have hard and fast rules that limit the information a prior employer will release regarding an employee. The only way you’ll know if that’s the situation, is to speak directly to the individual whose name the applicant has provided. Most references want to do the right thing for applicants, as well as for those who hire them. That means sticking to business, to facts and to telling the truth. When it works, it’s an effort that’s mutually beneficial. Make it work. It’s worth the time it takes.