Career Advice, Interviews

Are Your References Destroying Your Chance At A Job?

Ten years ago I was sitting in the office of my client Dan, a marketing executive. In the middle of our meeting, the conversation was interrupted when Dan’s phone rang. “I need to take this,’ he said. “I’m giving a job reference for a guy that used to work for me.”

I couldn’t help but listen as Dan dove into the reference-giving conversation, but within seconds I started to feel queasy.  Poor Dan gave the most left-handed reference ever, saying things like “Jack is really good at certain things, and lousy at many others,” and “depending on the situation and the amount of responsibility, I could see him being a great hire.”

Mamma mia! I thought. With reference-givers like this, who needs enemies?

After the call, I gingerly broached the reference-giving topic. “Dan,” I said, “Are you a fan of this Jack, who used to work for you?”

“Oh, he’s a great guy,” said Dan. “I’m crazy about Jack, but I believe in giving the whole picture.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “You may want to fill Jack in on that ‘whole-picture’ business before giving any more references for him.”

I am confident that Dan would not have asked Jack to serve as a reference for him if he’d known the kind of things Dan was likely to say. But after all, how can any of us know what a reference-giver is going to say about us? Dan’s half-hearted praise could be destroying Jack’s chances at a job, and Jack would never know it. Dan thought he was just giving the full picture.

References aren’t expected to gush about the people they’re recommending, but they’re expected to be more positive than not. Otherwise, the hiring manager or HR reference-checker is going to think, ‘This is the person Jack chose to recommend him?”

Your references are critical. People lose job opportunities over reference issues all the time. Here are five of the most common mishaps:

You’ve Got Reference Problems When….

  • One or more of your reference-givers can’t be reached. This is bad! Ask people if they’re willing to return calls and email messages quickly (within 24 to 48 hours) before signing them on as references for you. If they can’t make that commitment, keep looking.
  • References can’t speak knowledgeably about your work. It’s great to have VPs and Directors serving as your references, but if they can’t speak from first-hand knowledge about your results, they may be more of a hindrance than a help to you.
  • Your references aren’t credible themselves. One peer-type reference from a workplace buddy is fine. The rest of your slate of three or four reference-givers should be managers, clients or vendors. Anyone who serves as a reference-giver for you must be articulate, businesslike and sharp. We’re judged by the company we keep!
  • Your references are dusty. You don’t need to provide a reference for your current job (if you’re working and job-hunting simultaneously) but you’ve got to have at least one reference from each job prior to the present one.
  • Your references sound startled by the reference-checking call. This isn’t a shortcoming on their part. It means you skipped the critical step of telling them to expect a call.

If you build a list of eight or ten possible references, you’ll have several lists of three reference-givers to give out to prospective employers. That way, you won’t burn out the same three people taking phone call after phone call if your job-search activity heats up. If you’re daunted by the prospect of locating eight or ten credible and knowledgeable-about-you people from your past, hop over to LinkedIn. You shouldn’t have any trouble gathering your reference-giving crew once you use LinkedIn’s “Colleagues” tab to find people you worked with at every job on your resume.

Talk with your references again every time you press them into service. The more you can tell them about the specific type of job you’re pursuing, the more they’ll be able to help you.

If you worry that you may have a gee-thanks reference like Dan, mentioned above, ask a friendly search person to call your references and fill you in on the results. Don’t take any chances with the critical last phase of the selection process! At that point, you’ll have invested way too much to let a sideways comment (“Make sure and double-check Jack’s expense vouchers, if you hire him”) derail your hard work.