Who Cares About References?

You sent your resume and actually got a response. The phone screen and interview went very. You check your email and see “Please provide the names of three professional references.” At this point in the game, if people are calling your references you’re close to an offer. Typically it’s between you and another person and reference checks could be the deciding factor in who gets the job.

References. Are they still relevant in today’s job market or just a continuation of traditional HR practices in a non-traditional working environment? As hiring managers we want to know details of your job duties and how good (or bad) you were. Who better than former managers and peers to offer this insight? If you’re going for a job that requires references, make sure you approach this with tact and transparency.

First and foremost, make sure you have received the “OK” from the person to field calls from potential employers about you. Do this in person if possible, otherwise by phone (do NOT text or email anyone about a reference). When I’m asked to do references I appreciate a phone call for a couple of reasons: first I can hear your voice and get details about the job. That way when the calls come I can speak intelligently about you, but also advocate for your alignment to the role based on what I’ve seen you do or what I know you are capable of.

Do references even matter?

It depends on who you talk to. I mean, why are “they” even asking for references only to ask them the same things they asked you during the interview? They can help with selecting the right candidate but I don’t put major emphasis on them in my selection process. I almost missed out on a great hire because of waiting for a 2nd reference after receiving a glowing one. This was a standard HR procedure but our interview was granular enough that it, coupled with the first reference was enough for me to make the right decision. There was a need on my team that I was confident that this person could fulfill. So much so I stepped up to own anything that would go wrong related to the hire. When you find the right person hire them - or someone else will.

Social media has made data much more accessible and reliable. When I come across a resume that gets my attention, I search social media sites which are very telling of a person’s personality, interests and much more. We all tend to minimize some aspect of ourselves at work and there are things good and bad that a reference may not be aware of or forthcoming about.

What are they saying?

Do think carefully about who you ask to give a reference. Don’t just ask those people you were cool with either. Don’t assume you know what they will say about you. The point is to provide your next manager with an idea of your skills & personality from an unbiased source. I recall speaking with a peer after completing a reference for me and she told me what she said to the caller. We’d had a long professional and personal relationship so I expected all good things. But...there were some things she said that made me raise my eyebrow and I’m thinking “What you mean? You said what?” I started questioning our whole relationship but after I CHECKED MYSELF, she was actually right. She was familiar with my work and ways of interacting with others and much of what she said were in line with what I’d say about myself. She gave me a real reference, not just touting my accomplishments but speaking on things she felt would be good for a new employer to know about me.

I appreciated her sharing that feedback with me that I may not have otherwise received. It was a baseline for me in professional development and elevating my skills. I was offered the job. It made me appreciate our friendship more knowing that I could rely on her for honest, unfiltered feedback on big decisions. Be realistic about your career - everything you say do or produce won’t be perfect. You will at some point work with people you don’t gel with. Not every manager will be as invested in your success. Have people in your corner who will tell you what you need to hear whether it’s good or bad. Be humble and open enough to receive and act on the things you need to work on. It’s important to be clear on these things early so you don’t waste time applying for jobs that don’t align with what you want to do.

Accuracy over accolades.

I’ve seen candidates list references from jobs they had several years ago and no reference listed from the company from last year. If we haven’t worked together in a long time you may have changed. I’m a firm believer in growth so my assessment from three years ago, for example, may not be as valuable as your immediate past manager.

What about the people you didn’t list? Aside from a discreet job search, there are other reasons why candidates don’t list current or past companies for references. In that case I’d be more curious why that is because that implies there’s something not being said. So you didn’t vibe with the current boss like you did with your boss from 4 years ago - that has no bearing on the assessment of your professional capabilities. Or maybe you just “feel” like she wouldn’t give you an accurate review..why tho? Are you looking for a perfect reference? If so, stop it. 🛑

I’m curious about your strengths, work ethic, interpersonal and communication skills. I’m equally curious about things you need to work on. As a hiring manager it’s my goal to make the right hiring decision which could include asking references. Asking questions about handling challenges and developmental areas are important to setting a new employee up for success.

Even with our ever-changing work landscape there are long standing practices that linger and may for a long time. If you are the recipient of a reference request make sure you have a few people in mind who can speak intelligently about your skills but you as a person. Don't forget a thank-you to your reference, whether you get the job or not.

What do you think? Comment below.


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