Effective Use of Your References

You can dramatically increase your odds of being hired by accurately identifying the people who can best serve as  your references, securing their commitment, preparing them for the reference check process, and using their support strategically in the interview process.  While other candidates are randomly selecting former coworkers to serve as references, you have an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.  In order to do so, follow the recommendations below.

  1. Select people with the highest and most impressive titles who know you well.  Often as a manager, I have found that candidates listed coworkers and personal friends to serve as references for them.  I immediately discounted the opinion of those people, sometimes choosing not even to call them due to the perception of bias.  I’d far rather speak with a former boss, or a mentor who is a step or two higher on the company’s organizational chart.  Be bold, and have the courage to ask your superiors to support your job search.  At one point in my career as a mid-level manager, my reference list included a Superior Court judge, my boss’ boss, and a senior leader in an organization that partnered closely with mine.  I knew them all well enough to ask for their support, and their commitments gave me the confidence I needed to get a positive result from my job search at the time.
  2. Secure their commitment.  I generally recommend that you start by getting a face-to-face meeting with the person you’d like to have as a reference. Video conferencing and telephone calls can work for long-distance requests, but avoid email and other less-personal forms of communication at all costs. Listing someone as a reference without consulting them is a highly-effective way of getting a below-average review from them!  Ask the person first if they would consider serving as your reference, and provide them the opportunity to think about it for a brief period of time.  While you have their attention, ask them if they can provide you with candid feedback about your strengths and weaknesses as a professional.  This primes the pump, so to speak, and gives them an opportunity to consider what they might honestly say during the reference check process.  It also gives you valuable perspective that you can use when creating the unique selling proposition (USP) to employ in your job search.
  3. Prepare your references for the process.  Let your references know that you’ll be in contact with them by email as you move further into the interview process.  Once you’ve identified your USP, and carefully planned how you will communicate it during your interviews, make sure you communicate it to your references as well.  Say something like, “Thanks again for agreeing to serve as a reference for me.  When we talked last, you mentioned that my written communication skills are one of my greatest strengths as a professional.  You may be getting a call from (XYZ Company) to complete a reference check for me soon, and I wonder whether you’d be willing to emphasize that if and when they call.  What do you think?”
  4. Use their support strategically in the interview process.  Don’t wait until you’re a finalist to use your references.  When asked in an interview to list your strengths and weaknesses, say, “Rather than tell you what I think they are, let me tell you what a senior manager at my current company would say.  He/she would comment that I (insert strengths here).  I’ve listed him/her as a reference in case you’d like to hear more, and I think he/she has a really valuable perspective on my work, given his/her position with my current company.”

My own estimate as an experienced manager is that less than 5% of all candidates I’ve interviewed have followed all 4 recommendations listed here.  By following them yourself, you’ll separate yourself from the competition, and put yourself in a very favorable light when it’s time to make a hiring decision.

Have you heard these recommendations before?   How closely did you follow them, and what were the results?  If this is new information for you, let me know that too.  I welcome your comments and questions in the space below.