The Mentorist

Free-Range Chickens? Good. Free-Range References? Not.

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Let’s imagine you really want that job.  Then let’s imagine your ‘dream employer’ remains interested enough in you to ask for references.

If you’re like most people who ask me to fill the reference role, you’ll send an e-mail that reads something like this:  ‘Hi, [reference’s name] — I’m interviewing for a position as [X] at [Company Y].  May I use you as a reference?  [Company Y’s HR Director] will be calling you.  Thanks!’

Oh, really?

There are several things wrong with this picture. Let me list the ‘biggies’:

  1. Rolling the Dice

    Unless you have a strong hunch what sort of review your reference is going to give you, you’re putting that dream job offer at serious risk. If your reference’s answers to questions about you come off as tepid –- or even just include too many hesitant pauses — you’re done for.

    Before asking someone to serve as your reference, think back on your relationship with that person:  Did she give you performance reviews?  If so, what did they say?  Did she even know — and does she remember — your work well enough to comment on it today?  And, if not, why are you listing her as a reference?

    A person who was underwhelmed by your past job performance — or who has little memory of it — will not be a good reference, even if she happens to have been the ‘top dog’ in your old department.

  2. Prepping the Witness

    Surely, your dream job has a job description attached to it.  And — because you’ve made it far enough along in the interview process to be asked for references — you’ve done a decent job of convincing your prospective employer that you might fit that description.

    But, wait.  You’re not done yet:  Now you need to prep your reference, so that his comments about you will further reinforce your dream employer’s hunch that you possess those sought-after qualities.

    Whether you contact your reference first by telephone or by e-mail, give him a ‘bulleted’ list of the top qualifications needed to get the job you’re applying for.  Be sure to include the ‘soft skills’ that your dream employer wants to see (good collaborator, can work independently, creative thinker, etc.).

    Keep this list pithy.  No one has the time to read long paragraphs these days.  If you want to jog your reference’s memory by listing an example of how you demonstrated that particular quality when the two of you worked together, that’s fine.  Again, just keep it short.

    Attaching the actual job description to your e-mail is fine, but don’t expect your reference to do the excavation work.  Take responsibility for pulling out the ‘deal-killer’ qualifications you want him to touch on.

  3. Mind-Reading

    By now, you’ve probably been through more rounds of interviews for your dream job than you care to count. But, before you relegate them to distant memory, think back on what was covered:  Did your interviewers return again and again to any particular themes?  What were their questions trying to suss out about you, in particular?

    Through their questions, the interviewers have been conveying what’s important to see in a person who’s hired for the job.  Their questions may also have been communicating the hesitations they have about you as a candidate.

    Once you’ve extracted these themes, include them in the ‘bulleted’ list you send to your reference.  If he’s aware of your dream employer’s priorities and concerns about you, he can help bolster your image during the reference check.

  4. Keeping It Straight

    Reference check questions are predictable. Among the ‘old chestnuts’: ‘Why did [your name] leave [reference’s] company?’ and ‘What is [your name’s] biggest weakness?’  [Note: If the dream employer runs a particularly PC establishment, ‘weakness’ will be translated as ‘growth area’….]

    You’ve likely been asked these same two questions during your interviews.  Tell your reference how you answered them.  That doesn’t necessarily mean she will mimic your responses, but it should inform her answers.  You want to create the impression that the two of you come from the same planet.

  5. Following Up

    Whether or not you end up getting hired, always thank your reference — after the fact — for taking the time to recommend you.

    How to get a good job referenceIf your dream employer checked references midstream in the interview process (a sequencing that’s becoming more and more common), ask your reference for insight into what topics your dream employer was particularly keen on probing with him.

    This information will tell you something about the employer’s priorities and possible reluctance when it comes to hiring you. Use it to prepare for your next set of interviews.

So, pat yourself on the back for making it this far through the interview process. And then remember (with apologies to the UNCF): A reference is a terrible thing to waste.

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

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