Did your references ruin your job offer?
By: Courtland James, Executive Coach
During the job hunt you probably spent considerable time polishing your resume and rehearsing your interview skills, but you may have neglected to adequately develop a list of references for potential employers or clients to contact. Sure, you have the phone number and email address of a couple of past supervisors that you can give out, so you’re all set, right? I mean, do hiring managers even check references anymore?
Turns out they do. In a 2016 study conducted by the Society for Human Resources (SHRM), they found that references were in the top 3 selection criteria used to assess potential candidates for most positions. This isn’t surprising, considering hiring is one of the most important functions a company performs, and if done poorly can lead to some major financial consequences for the company. Hiring managers, therefore, want every available piece of data to ensure they are making the best decision with a candidate, and recommendations from past professional colleagues and supervisors carry a lot of weight.
The same rules will apply when you want a potential client or customer wants to check your references for reassurance that they are making the best choice. Just like a good recommendation from a reference can secure a job offer or land you that perfect client, so too can a poor or generic recommendation cost you the offer. Below are five tips to help you curate a reference list that will help you shine in your job search.
Note that many times clients will need references to do business with you or with your firm. You can apply these tips to that situation as well.
- Develop a list of 5-7 references minimum. If you are just graduating from school and looking for your first job then it can be understandable if you can only come up with 3 references. After a few years in the workforce, however, you need to maintain a list of 5-7 strong references who can speak to your strengths and past accomplishments. You don’t need to provide every reference to every employer, but having a longer list can help you pick references that highlight specific attributes that may be attractive to a particular company and avoid using the same reference over and over if the job search takes longer than expected. Remember they aren’t spending their days waiting for hiring managers to call them on your behalf so don’t overburden a reference with too many requests.
- Maintain your reference list separate from your resume. Your resume is probably already too long and the one-page rule definitely applies since hiring managers are looking at sometimes hundreds of resumes at one time. The good news is you shouldn’t be putting your recommendations on their anyway. Potential employers aren’t likely to call references until after an initial interview, which is usually where they will ask for references. This is the perfect opportunity to provide them with a well-formatted reference list that includes each reference’s full name, company and position, professional email and phone number. It will help you further stand out if you briefly note what skill or accomplishment that reference can speak to from your resume.
- Choose your references wisely. References should always be someone you have had a professional relationship or interaction within the past. It’s best not to include family or friends unless they can specifically speak firsthand to your professional achievements. Past supervisors, project team peers, former or current clients, school faculty, or volunteer work associates. The important trait of a good reference is that they have firsthand knowledge of your performance and accomplishments and are willing to speak to this in a positive and honest light to potential employers. This goes without saying, but don’t list a reference who was in a subordinate role or a direct report to you.
- Maintain a relationship with your references and communicate with them before you give out their information. If you list a reference from 10 years ago, it’s reasonable to assume they may have forgotten some of the details about you and your accomplishments from that time. Keep an active list of good references and make it a point to maintain contact with them as you progress in your career. It’s not only a good way to ensure they will be a good reference, but you never know when they may introduce you to your next opportunity. Also, give your references a heads up before recruiters and hiring managers reach out to them. It looks just as bad to an employer when a reference you gave them ignores and won’t return their calls as it does if the reference gave you a poor recommendation.
- Do a background check on your references. Hiring managers and recruiters these days love to use LinkedIn and Facebook to conduct their own background checks of their candidates. You better believe they are checking out your references online presence as well, so you should too. Make sure your reference’s social profiles are credible and present your reference as someone the potential employer can trust. Also, asking for a recommendation on LinkedIn from your reference can give you a good preview of their communication skills and their ability to speak about specific, positive accomplishments that paint you in an attractive light.
For a list of common questions hiring managers and recruiters ask job references check out this article. You can use these to do a mini-interview of your references and also during employee reviews to get some candid feedback on your performance even if you aren’t actively job hunting.
Bonus Tip: If you suspect you may have gotten a bad review from a reference there are resources to help you screen your references. Consulting firms like Allison & Taylor conduct reference screening services to help you determine if your references are giving bad reviews and preventing you from getting that job offer.