Are Bad References Holding You Back?

This post is by Phil La Duke,  a partner in the Performance Assurance Practice for ERM. La Duke has over 20 years of training, performance improvement, and lean manufacturing experience.  Many job seekers screw up what would seem to be a slam-dunk — providing references; it’s easier, and more common, than you might think. Picking the appropriate references can literally mean the difference between getting an offer or not. When picking references make sure that you:
  • Choose people who know you well. It’s better to have someone who can provide clear insights into your character than someone who has a lofty title or a works for a well-known company. People who know you well are also more likely to advocate on your behalf.
  • Choose people who represent you well. In many cases people chose people that they have known for years and years without considering how a potential employer might perceive the person. It’s not enough that a reference think well of you. Ask yourself how well your references will be able to articulately represent you and your interests.
  • Know how they will answer the tough questions. Before selecting people as your references don’t be afraid to ask them pointed questions about yourself. Ask your potential references questions like: “What do you think is my greatest weakness?” or “How do I deal with stress?” If you aren’t happy with the answers your potential references provide you might wish to reconsider providing them to a potential employer.
  • Be honest. If the prospective employer asks for a reference from someone who is not related to you, don’t provide a sister, brother-in-law, or uncle because you assume that because they have a different last name the prospective employer will be none-the-wiser. Asking for references is essentially the employer lobbing up softballs, why risk spoiling that by attempting to cheat the system. Beyond the obvious need to be straightforward with prospective employer, when you bring in relatives as ringers the lie is too easy to discover.
  • Ask permission to use the person as a reference. The most common mistake that job seekers make when providing references is in failing to ask permission from the contact. Unless you ask permission and notify the contact that someone will be calling for a reference, he or she may be reluctant to disclose details. In addition to asking for permission to use someone as a reference, you should also provide a context for the reference and details about the job. If there are specific qualities that you possess and are important to the position, let the reference know of them, but don’t try to coach or lead them.
  • Ensure that your contact feels comfortable providing a reference. Many people feel as uncomfortable providing a reference as they do loaning money. When you ask someone to provide a reference you are asking them to do you a favor. You don’t have the right to get angry if they don’t feel comfortable providing a reference, thank them for considering your request and move on without harboring ill feelings. Pressuring a friend or ex-coworker into providing a reference is a recipe for a poor reference.
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