Prepare Your References

Prepare Your References

You have a top notch resume, you’ve aced the interview, and now they’ve asked for your references. Not a problem! You hand them your previously prepared list with the pertinent information for your best references. A typical list includes three business and two personal references, but, depending on the company, it could be any combination.

Now you sit back and wait for the job offer, right? Whoa, it’s not time to sit on your laurels yet!

You need to prepare your references at least as well as you prepared for your interview. What does that mean? Here are some tips for preparing your references to represent you well.

The first bit of advice you give your references is this: be honest but brief in answering questions. Tell them that volunteering information, however helpful they think it may be, is a bad idea. More than telling them, actively discourage them!

Here are some examples that may not be received well by a prospective employer.

Your preference shares a personal quality with the caller by saying that you are a great mother (grandmother) and love spending quality time with your children (grandchildren), especially right when they get home from school. An innocent comment, right?

But what if the job they have in mind is a 9-5 job? You won’t be there when the children get home. What effect will that have on your job performance? Has your reference innocently planted a doubt in your new employer’s mind?

Your reference shares that you are a cancer survivor; what a great experience! But what if the employer’s representative has an experience where her friend had a relapse and died. Now she has mixed emotions about your candidacy! Tell them not to share that wonderful news with the potential employer! There must be something else you could suggest they use as an example.

Your previous co-worker shares that you worked lots of overtime to get your job done, thinking he is sharing that you are a hard worker. What if what the new employer hears is that you cannot get your job done in a regular day? You may want to suggest some specific and measurable achievements you would like your references to use.

Here are some typical questions asked of references and suggestions for preparing your references to answer them.

  1. Tell me a little bit about John (insert your name here!).

The best response is for your reference to try to hit on two or three of your most relevant qualities for the position at hand. Help your references understand you; maybe even talk about your good qualities ahead of time. If they’ve heard it, they are more likely to repeat it!

  1. What are John’s strengths?

You want your reference to be specific when answering; give an example with metrics. Help your references know your achievements; give them some examples. Every job has its own requirements; be sure to re-brief every time you use that reference.

  1. What are John’s weaknesses?

Everybody has weaknesses! Tell your references to be honest. But this should be their briefest answer! Again, give them some examples.

  1. Why did John leave the company?

Was it within your control? No need to sugarcoat the answer. Laid off, downsizing, reduction-in-force, etc. are all good answers. If you were fired for cause, perhaps your reference could give an extenuating circumstance. If you were fired for being late too often, what did you learn from that? Do your references know you well enough to address that?

  1. Would you hire John again?

Easy answer! If your previous employer’s budget allowed it, and the position was open and all other parameters made the hiring plausible, would they choose you for their company again? Help your reference say yes!

If the answer is really that you were not a good fit, have them say that in a pleasing way. For example, you are now looking for an opportunity where you are a good fit, could be part of that answer.

Reference Check – Best Practices

Recently a client asked me to provide them with a list of reference check questions as a component of a sales recruiting project. My gut reaction was, “Reference checks? Why bother? All most companies will provide is confirmation of very basic information such a dates of employment.”

It struck me that my impression was based on very old information. After all, I hadn’t conducted any reference checks or researched related best practices for many years. I decided that it was time to take a fresh look at the current state of reference checking and summarize my findings in this article.

What is a Reference Check?

Let’s begin by clarifying what a reference check isn’t:

It isn’t a Background Check, which may include a drug test, a check for criminal records and other data verification.

It isn’t Employment Verification, which confirms dates of employment, salary, title and eligibility for re-hiring (though a thorough reference check may include employment verification).

The best definition I found to explain the purpose of a reference check is this: A Reference Check focuses on checking previous colleagues’ opinions about an individual’s performance.

Why conduct Reference Checks?

The primary reason is past performance is one of the strongest predictors of future performance. If you can gather accurate and balanced information (that addresses both positives and negatives) from a job candidate’s past employers, you can dramatically increase your chances of avoiding hiring mistakes and hire people who will perform well.

What challenges are involved in conducting Reference Checks?

Here are some of the key challenges:

Not enough quality references

It can be hard to reach them

It can be hard to get valid data

Time and cost

Most people don’t find doing this kind of work to be a lot of fun

What are key characteristics of a good Reference Source?

When conducting reference checks, you want to speak with individuals who have been in a position to observe the performance of your job candidate. This includes people who have worked with or for the candidate or have supervised the candidate. It does NOT include family members or friends.

Other important parameters to consider are:

Length of relationship

Freshness of relationship

Nature of relationship

Closeness of relationship

Is providing Reference Check information Legally Risky?

Although legal challenges may arise from the reference checking process, they are usually the result of poor practices such as discussing prohibited topics.

According to the 2004 Reference and Background Checking Survey Report compiled by the Society of HR Management, just 2% of companies are sued for reference-based defamation. It is important to note that the standards applied to reference-based defamation suits are the same as those applied to libel suits – the plaintiff needs to prove not just harm, but also malicious and dishonest intent. This is a very high bar.

When you think about it, there can also be risk in providing positive information. If you make positive comments about a candidate and the prospective employer hires the candidate, and the candidate performs poorly, that employer could sue you for not disclosing complete information.

Tips on When Employment Reference Checks Make Sense

I recently read an interesting article Dr. John Sullivan posted on ERE.Net. The article, entitled “What’s Wrong with Reference Checks, Part One,” says in essence that reference checks tend to suck. His take on employment reference checks may be a little harsh but not entirely inaccurate. But then, like most things, the devil is in the details.

Dr. Sullivan lists certain potential discrepancies concerning reference checks and how they can be problematic or not return worthwhile information. Unlike criminal records searches, which just about every employer uses as part of their employment screening program, reference checks are not so absolute as a criminal records background check. There are gray areas and as Dr. Sullivan contests, the reference checks are subject to biases. Unlike criminal background checks, references are subjective.

For the most part, no one provides you with a bad reference. The reference usually views the employment candidate in a favorable light. However, I would also venture there are some dramatic exceptions. I remember one time where when asked about the candidate’s departure, the reference responded, “Because nobody around here could stand him.” If nothing else, the candidate either chooses that reference in desperation or is a bad judge of character. But I digress.

But assuming that the reference will be partial toward the candidate, there is a fair amount of information you can learn from a reference check. In our experience, it seems the higher you go on the ladder, the more specific and the more useful the reference information. I find that C level and executive level business people are the most articulate in describing skill sets, relationships, performance assessment than references on the lower echelon. They seem better acquainted with the drill and better understanding just what the reference researcher is looking for.

I also find that references on the upper job levels are quicker to get back to you than those in the lower employment positions. When you call a senior executive, and they know that you are calling on a reference, they are more apt to take your call or get back to you quickly than someone on a more junior level. They understand the heavy competition in the job market, especially at their levels, and they will move to help out a friend or associate. This may be akin to the old saying, “if you want something done correctly, asks a busy person.”

For certain clients I will personally conduct references for the more significant employment positions. I am more familiar with these people and know what to ask and how best to feel my way through their answers to discern the truth from their desire to get a buddy hired. I also interview references for creative. Having worked in advertising and show business, I understand these spaces and what is required in skill sets and disposition. In knowing what are client is looking or, I can direct questions to certain qualities–is the writer good with dialog and character? Is the artist fluent with digital media, print, whatever?

On the other hand, the most painful experience is dealing with the semi-articulate, usually junior staff, which may yield very little useful information. And then there is the academics candidates use as references. With younger job recruits, sometimes they will list their professors with whom they had taken classes or had been their mentors. Frankly, listening to some of the professors can be a painful experience. With academics, not only is the reference often less than hoped for, but too often the professor can take forever to spit out what most can express rather quickly. No wonder I used to cut a good number of my college classes.