The Right References

The Right References
Strategically choosing your job references can give you the edge in getting an offer
Taylor Lindstrom
SFGate.com
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Though serious job seekers devote many hours into perfecting their resumes and cover letters, they often get caught flat-footed when a potential employer asks for professional references. Many simply throw out the names of a few old bosses and hope for the best, but putting a little more time and effort into the process can provide the extra edge that job seekers need to make them stand out from the pack.

Good references can make or break a potential hire, and it’s always smart to have several to choose from in your arsenal. “In general, you should always have three references,” says Isabella Schwarzinger, president of Advanced Employment Services, a San Francisco staffing firm. “Usually that’s what you’ll be asked for.” Though most hiring managers only ask for three references, it’s smart to have as many as a dozen available so you can offer those that are best able to talk about your strengths for a particular job. After all, if you’re applying to a supervisory position, you want a reference who can discuss your leadership capabilities.

The best references are always managers and supervisors. “You want someone who has supervised your work, like a superior,” says Schwarzinger. “Friends aren’t going to say anything bad about you, and you’re only going to ask the coworkers you’re buddy-buddy with.”

However, Rebecca Kieler, owner of Kieler Career Consulting, suggests casting the net a little wider. “I think people miss a lot of opportunities when they don’t think of other people besides management,” she says. “I always recommend that they ask colleagues, people in cross-functional teams, vendors and clients. If they’re managers, they should ask some of their employees.” References who can speak to all sides of your job performance – as a team player, a supervisor or an assistant – can help create a picture of a well-rounded individual.

Once job seekers have chosen the people they’d most like to ask to be references, they face the often-difficult task of popping the question without creating an awkward obligation. Kieler recommends e-mail as a tool to avoid this problem. “If you ask people directly, they’re uncomfortable and they may say yes even if they don’t want to,” she advises. “If you ask by email, they have the option to say no gracefully, and that’s much better than them saying yes and then not giving you a good reference.”

Once the contact has agreed to be a reference, the work’s over – right? Not a chance, says Kieler: “References need to be cultivated just like anything else.” The reference needs to know what strengths the job seeker would like played up – though that doesn’t mean stretching the truth. “Never lie,” Schwarzinger says flatly. “It’s going to come out very quickly. Call your references after a job interview and let them know this is for a sales manager position or an executive assistant position, so can you please mention the things I’ve done for you that are relevant to that job.”

It sounds simple, but if the reference isn’t aware that certain skills need to be played up, they may forget to mention them altogether. “Help them help you,” says Kieler. “Say, ‘I know they’re going to ask about this, will you make sure to talk about this experience, would you focus on my leadership, my ability to work with teams, my ability to work with deadlines.’” Without that vital information, references may fall back on generic approval of the job seeker’s overall performance, which may not be enough of a boost to get the hiring manager excited. With just a little prep work, job seekers can make sure their references know which strengths should be brought to the forefront for each individual job.

One caution about references: as hiring managers become more sophisticated in their networking, job seekers may find themselves with more than they bargained for. “If you had three managers, and you didn’t have a good rapport with one of them, you should know that a well-connected hiring manager may get to that person and ask them anyway,” says Kieler. “You need to be prepared for that.” Most managers, Schwarzinger is quick to note, are professional enough to keep their personal feelings out of their recommendations. “A manager should definitely be able to say I might not like you as a person, but this was your contribution to the company and this is what you did well.” However, there is always the possibility that an old employer may give an uncomfortably biased view.

The good news is that hiring managers are usually capable of disregarding a single bad review in the light of several favorable ones – which is yet another reason to make sure all those other references are enthusiastic and well-prepared.

Posted under: Job Search