Choose Your References Wisely

You are in the home stretch of a career transition and now you need to provide references. You have proactively prepared an arsenal of professional references for your potential employer—but are they the right references?

Generally, professional references fall into two categories: those that appreciate the importance of the context they are providing and offer substantive information and those that offer little more than compliments and fluff. So how do you make sure you have references that fall into the former category rather than the latter? Keep in mind these following points when thinking about your reference list:

1. Plan to have three to five appropriate references. Reference reports for clients should include information about candidates from varying perspectives. As such, reference lists should be diverse and include at least two individuals to whom the candidate reported as well as one or two peers and direct reports. A group like this allows me, as a search consultant, and your potential employer to better understand how you interact with professionals across the organization and at different levels, how you lead and manage teams, and finally, what you need from the person(s) to whom you report to be successful. In this case, “appropriate” is synonymous with “relevant” and is extremely crucial. Having someone on your reference list from your earliest professional role will not be nearly as helpful as an individual who can speak to your current skill set and working style. Just like a resume, a reference list should be updated regularly to ensure individuals are included who can speak to your recent performance.

2. Inform your references that you have listed them and make sure they can be available to speak on your behalf. We are all incredibly busy and asking someone to take time out of their day to spend on a non-work–related call can be burdensome. However, as you are approach the final stages of your interview process and know that your references will be called upon, you must reconnect with them and let them know they should be expecting a call. Let them know of the time commitment—generally not more than 30 minutes—and how much you appreciate their honest input. Provide the person who will be conducting the reference checks with as much contact information as is available to make the process of reaching your references as easy as possible. In cases where it is difficult to reach a reference, you may have to scramble to find another appropriate person, and in some cases, it may reflect poorly on you if a reference is unresponsive. A lack of response from a reference can signal to the potential employer (or search consultant) that there may be an issue with the candidate, which the reference would not feel comfortable omitting from their feedback.

3. Be sure your references can provide substantive and honest information about your professional life. References should be able to provide substance, not theory. Actual examples of a candidate's experience, accomplishments and areas of professional development mean more to employers than unspecified information about how affable a person is or how a candidate has been able to demonstrate a strong work ethic. Employers are expecting some “meat on the bones” in reference reports, so choose someone who has firsthand insight into, for example, an initiative you successfully led and implemented and its impact on the organization. Professional references who you have reported to should be able to easily communicate the value you provided in a role. If your peers and team members listed cannot do the same, it is time to reconsider the list. Another note about substance: Information about how a candidate has developed professionally or areas in which the candidate still needs some work is equally as useful, if not more so, as someone waving a banner of a candidates successes. No one is perfect and, hopefully, we are all growing and developing professionally over time. Reference reports filled with fluff and only positive remarks do nothing for the prospective employer who could benefit from information about what to expect (or not) from their new hire. This candid information can also inform your new boss and leadership team of how best to manage you and which of your skills may need further tweaking going forward.

By the time you have made it to the reference check process, it is safe to assume there is a good match between you and your employer. That said, this step in the process should not be viewed simply as a rubber stamp. Although a potential employer is incredibly interested in you, they want the reference report to validate what they already believe to be true. Do not diminish the importance of good references! Be thorough in your selection to ensure the individuals chosen to represent you can provide a clear, honest and informative perspective on you and your work.


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