You are that close to landing the job of your dreams. All your future boss has to do is check your references and you’ll be on the team.
Yet reference checking can be a formidable hurdle, one that may eliminate one in five candidates from consideration, according to an OfficeTeam survey. My new Fortune magazine article shows the speed bumps in the way of exceptional due diligence, and gives bosses some advice on digging deeper.
Here are six ways to manage your references so they check out and usher you in:
1. Ask for more. When Gerald Maatman, a partner in Seyfarth Shaw law firm, hires an associate, he asks for six to ten references – and either he or his HR person will talk to them all. “I want to see the wide range of people’s assessment on the candidate,” he told me. Some companies pursue “360-degree reference checks;” people who reported to you, as well as your supervisors. So prepare a long references list; include a handful from your volunteer activities, especially if you’ve developed crucial skills or connections there. If your list is light, put out a request on Facebook or your LinkedIn profile and see who raises their virtual hand.
2. Check your references. Research the people who are recommending you to make sure they have a good reputation. You wouldn’t want to list someone who was in legal trouble or had just been fired for workplace misconduct. Assure yourself – and the HR manager – that your reference is not saying or doing anything online that “could put you at a disadvantage,” Paula Hunter, executive director at Outercurve Foundation told MarketWatch. If you’re using a relative, say your father or aunt, make the personal relationship clear and are truthful, with a balanced picture of your work performance.
3. Prep them. After your first interview, spend 10 minutes briefing your most important references on the job – including key traits you have are most valuable to your future employer. It’s been a while since you worked together, fill them in on some recent successes or projects you’ve completed. Discuss any stumbles or big mistakes you made while working together. That way, when the HR manager asks your reference about weaknesses or missteps, your reference will recall the comeback or solution and not just the problem you triggered. Help frame the incident in a way that shows something positive, or a lesson learned that paid off later.
4. Anticipate questions. Smart recruiters and HR people will ask the same questions of the candidate and their references, especially on anything tricky or controversial. They may ask “why’d you leave this company?” Or “Tell me about a time you dropped the ball.” So after your interview, drop your references an email on the tougher questions they’re also likely to hear – and remind them of details that may have eluded them. You want your stories to match up, as long as the reference will do that without feeling uncomfortable or like they’re lying.
5. Watch nuance and tone. If your former boss sounds upbeat and pleased, your chances of getting the job could increase. “A favorable reference is not hesitant to jump in and sing the praises,” said Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Allison & Taylor which conducts reference checks for individuals seeking jobs and businesses. If they hesitate or pause before answering, it could indicate a “concern below the surface,” he said. So if your former boss is cautious, thoughtful and slow to answer questions, you may want to find another reference who immediately will sound enthusiastic about you. Or perhaps your former boss could answer reference questions via email.
6. Displacing the displeased boss. About half of all reference checks turn up something negative, Shane said. Your job is to make sure the enthusiastic and impressed-with-you types far outweigh anyone who may express reservations or disappointment. If your former supervisor reprimanded you several times, you may want to bring that up in the interview – and show how you learned to ask for help when you had too many assignments due the same week. If you tell the story first to the hiring manager, you may be able to remove most of the negativity it carries. Or if you could come up with two other supervisors to put on your reference list and they sing your praises, your employer may never get to the grumpy former boss.