Some people suggest that these days references are practically useless. It’s difficult to get information out of former employers, most companies are reluctant to go on the record, and personal references are just people that you hand pick to say nice things about you. They’re canned and controlled and virtually meaningless as a way to evaluate you as a potential employee.
Well, we’re here to tell you, that’s not our experience. Far from it. Our clients generally insist on reference checks and our recruiters would rely on them regardless. ATR recruiters Sam Saultz and Josh Seliner told us that “for many clients, references are absolutely important,” and “clients definitely care. It’s something we take very seriously.”
That doesn’t mean that people who point out the difficulties with references are wrong, it just means that you need to understand how references are used, how recruiters and others evaluate them and decide how much of it is reliable, and what to do to get yours right and make them useful to potential employers. References still matter and thinking otherwise or getting it wrong can make a big difference.
Let’s start by getting one thing out of the way – the bad reference. We tend to focus much more on our negatives and often judge ourselves more harshly than others do, and so we worry. Or maybe we have a legitimate reason to worry, not all jobs are good experiences. Still, our advice, don’t dwell on it.
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A really negative reference is unlikely to happen. Many employers are reluctant to do much more than confirm dates of employment and titles out of an abundance of legal caution. A general phone call to the company will get little more than that information. Our previous post, Can a past employer give me a bad reference?, covers this in more detail, but more than likely, even if you had some sort of epic fail it probably won’t be spoken of in this type of check.
However, pay careful attention to what was just said. “They will confirm dates of employment and titles.”
So make sure yours are correct. Don't lie. Same with degrees, certificates, awards or honors. Don't make it up, don’t stretch the truth. This kind of factual information is what companies and schools can, and will confirm. Don’t lie about anything, it’s just not worth it.
Now, let's focus on the positives.
First, our recruiters told us that the simple fact that you have someone who is willing to take the time and speak on your behalf tells them something about you. What message does it send if you can’t provide any references? Not a good one. And it’s more than just references you personally supply, these days your LinkedIn profile should include references and endorsements. Having nothing raises a red flag.
Second, it doesn’t surprise or disturb them that a reference says good things about you, they expect them to. People aren’t necessarily looking for a reference to disqualify you, it isn’t a “gotcha” moment. Given where references generally happen in the process, they provide additional information and, really, confirmation that the candidate we think is talented and a good fit, really will be.
The key is being able to tell the difference between a reference that has no substance behind it or comes from someone who really isn’t in a position to evaluate your work effectively, and the reference that comes from someone who is. Whether it’s a good or bad reference is secondary to whether it’s a reliable reference.
What makes a reference reliable? First, who they are and their connection to you, is really important. Sam told us that “when a candidate is only able to provide friends or colleagues as a reference it definitely concerns me and I tend to read into it.” While everyone can shed light on your skills and experience, Sam and Josh agreed that they also need to speak with a supervisor or your boss to get the full picture.
In fact, Sam told us that “some of the most truthful and insightful references come from someone a level above the candidate’s boss, a director or maybe the head of the department or senior leader of the team. They usually have a big picture perspective and give honest feedback of how candidates fit into the company.”
Second, how in-depth their knowledge of your work is also matters. Josh explained “references are important to learning about a candidate’s previous experience – their strengths and weaknesses,” but it works best if they really know you and your abilities. How long did you work together and how closely? What did you work on? Were they your direct supervisor or head of your department? It’s great to have a senior person as a reference, as Sam pointed out, but not if they are too far removed from you and your work.
Two other things we heard from our recruiters. When a former boss or supervisor has moved on to another company, they are often now free from any constraints placed on them by company policies or legal concerns, which can make them more reliable and relevant. Something to keep in mind. Also, when you are being considered for another position internally, an internal reference is essential.
For an IT contractor, that can be critical. We work with many large, global companies who have numerous opportunities for IT contractors across multiple projects and divisions. A good internal reference from your current supervisor nearly always ensures continued work; a bad one, and it’s nearly impossible to place you. This won’t always be the case but it’s something to be aware of. Certain references are going to trump others.
Given this, it’s clear that it’s important to choose your references carefully and “credentialize” them. Make sure you include their title, what your relationship was and any additional relevant information to help a recruiter or hiring manager evaluate their suitability and reliability as a reference for you.
Make sure that your references can speak to your relevant experience. You should have a list of people that you can choose from and select based on the position you are going for. If it's a project manager position give a reference who has worked with you in that role, not someone who knew you when you ran the call center. Providing multiple references is an opportunity to have them speak with people who talk about all your talents, and from different viewpoints, and references from senior management can be helpful if they know you well.
It’s also extremely important to notify your references that they will be called and explain the position and the company to them. They will give better information that is more relevant and helpful to the prospective employer if they understand the situation much less are surprised by a phone call they didn’t know was coming. It’s not cheating, it’s being prepared. A reference who can give specific examples of your skills and why you would be a good fit is more helpful than one who just says vague nice things.
It’s a little like how you are advised to answer questions during the interview. GIve details and examples; don’t just say it, prove it. Your reference saying “they did a good job” isn’t as powerful as “they managed a team of 10 and completed the project successfully without any major problems” or “I was always impressed with her ability to think on her feet and find solutions to any glitches that came up.” They should probably be prepared for a question about your weaknesses, just like you are. A reference that can give this kind of information is really going to help you.
Finally, don't inadvertently give yourself a bad reference online. In addition to ensuring that your references are up to par on LinkedIn, don’t forget about your social media accounts. Some employers are turning to all sources of information to get a better picture of you. Make sure that your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media are sanitized and G rated or privatized while you are job searching.
Far from being irrelevant, done right, references tell prospective employers a lot about you. Our clients and recruiters absolutely use them to confirm that a candidate they see as a good fit, really will be. To make your references really work for you, choose them carefully, tailor them to the job you are applying for, and make sure they know you well and can reliably speak about your skills and experience. Good luck!