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Using References to Help You Land a Job

What comes to mind when you think about references?

  • Do you envision official-looking letters of recommendation to send with your resume or pull from your brief case at an interview?

  • Do you dread a knife-in-the-back from your current manager, who automatically denigrates anyone whose opinions, methods or demographics disagree with his?

  • Are you confused about whom you should ask to recommend you?

  • Do you wonder if references are pointless, since your company's policy is to divulge job title and dates of employment only?

  • Or do you firmly believe a good reference can make the difference between your getting the job or not?

  • Are you unsure about whether to put reference names on your resume or reserve the space for other, more important information?

When job seekers talk about references, they generally have lots of opinions, but few convictions. Everyone agrees that references play a role in landing a position, but hardly anyone knows exactly what it is. If you are among the majority of professionals who just aren't sure what to do or not do about references, read on.

Whom Should You Ask for a Reference

Probably, you'll put your managers and colleagues at the top of your list because they are in the best position to evaluate your paid work. It makes sense to include them among your references, even though they may not be able to discuss your performance because of company policy. Unfortunately, even if you have made a tremendous contribution and received consistently excellent reviews, the legal and human resources departments may restrict a potential employer's access to your colleagues because of possible litigation. Why would you want to sue anyone over a positive reference? You wouldn't, but many companies feel safer keeping their employees and managers from discussing the performance of all ex-employees, whether it was good or bad. While there is no doubt this policy results in frustration for the many to protect the few, you are not in a position to change it.

However, you still have a number of sources other than your former employer who can vouch for your excellent work. If you are in sales, clients make terrific references. Purchasing managers or buyers can rely on their suppliers to corroborate their experiences. If you have had regular professional contact with anyone outside your company, don't hesitate to ask him to serve as a reference for you. If someone thinks you did a good job, he will usually be both honored and happy to sing your praises.

If your position is strictly an inside job, you may be able to get a reference from a former colleague or manager from another department, or someone who serves in a field or corporate office capacity removed from your day-to-day operations. Fellow task force members, for example, are in an excellent position to discuss your initiative, follow through, team skills, creativity, etc. Because they don't work with you directly, they may be more able to openly communicate with a potential employer than your manager. Supervisors or peers, who worked closely with you and have now left the company, can also be great references, and they are under no obligation to tow the "no comment" company line.

If you are employed and looking for another position on the QT, you probably won't want to give your current manager's name as a reference anyway. Most potential employers understand this and are willing to talk to other individuals who can vouch for your performance and integrity. Some of the venues that tend to produce favorable references include volunteer work, hobby groups, university classes, neighborhood groups, political campaigns, extracurricular activities, sports teams, church congregations, alumni and professional organizations, private clubs, etc. References from leaders in these groups can be especially useful if you have made an important contribution. Officers, board members and committee chairs/members are a lot more memorable and praiseworthy than someone who only attends general meetings. When it comes to references, the old adage that "You get out what you put in" is certainly true.

Making the Most of Your References

While you typically don't list references on a cover letter or resume, it's a good idea to have them primed and ready for when you become one of the top candidates for a position. Before starting your job search, decide whom you want to vouch for you. Then call to see if they are willing to discuss your qualifications with potential employers. This approach is both courteous and smart because it alerts your references to the important role you want them to play in your job search and provides you with the opportunity to verify their names, titles, addresses and phone numbers.

Another important bit of protocol involves contacting your references to forewarn them that ABC Company may be calling to discuss your performance and prepare them for the impending conversation. A savvy job seeker customizes her references' comments just as she tailors her cover letters and resumes for two reasons:

  • She can prime her references to concentrate on highlighting her strongest skills.

  • Her references really appreciate being briefed on the opening she's pursuing and the experience, skills and personality traits it requires.

In other words, it's both enlightened self-interest and a benefit to your references to offer some information about what to expect when they get "the call." They want to present you in the best possible light. Help them do it.

The Catastrophic Expectation

Most people can think of at least one person with whom they have a massive personality conflict. Unfortunately, that individual is often their boss, college department head, biggest client or volunteer coordinator; in other words, the person they will most likely have to ask for a reference.

Because they have such a miserable relationship with this individual, they strongly suspect he is eager to sabotage their job search and torpedo their chance for the position they've always wanted. As they agonize over this irony, losing sleep, worrying, cursing his existence, they engulf themselves in catastrophic expectations about how he will assassinate their character and leave them begging on the street. If this scenario sounds familiar, don't be embarrassed. You'd be surprised at the number of otherwise rational people who whip themselves into an emotional frenzy obsessing about potential catastrophes, when a little reality testing would put their fears to rest.

If you are concerned that someone will blackball you, ask a friend or executive recruiter to call him for a reference. In almost every instance, he will either lavish you with praise or pass the call along to personnel. It is rare for even a really nasty colleague to give negative feedback on people who have left an organization. Now that you aren't bugging him anymore, he can afford to at least be charitable, if not downright complimentary. Few people are comfortable destroying a person's reputation, especially if there isn't some reward for them in doing it.

Should your friend hang up the phone and tell you that your worst fears are true, you have three possible courses of action:

  • You can confront the perpetrator with his accusations and threaten him with a lawsuit for libel. This is not your best choice because it is time consuming, emotionally draining and expensive.

  • You can ask another person at the company with whom you have a good rapport to serve as your reference instead.

  • If the organization is large enough, you can resolve the situation with personnel and tell all potential employers to call human resources for a reference. While legal policies may restrict HR from giving you a recommendation, they won't destroy your reputation either.

Often, when a person leaves a company under adverse circumstances, he can work out an agreement with management stating exactly what the company will tell a potential employer about the caliber of his work and why he left. If you have been fired or terminated because of a reorganization or downsizing, ask your boss for this agreement as part of your severance package. Unless you have done something truly egregious, he will be relieved to corroborate a mutually agreeable account of your leave taking and your benefits to the company, (if legal policies allow him to give more than your name, rank and serial number).

Letters of Recommendation

Many job seekers think letters of recommendation are the best vehicle for impressing a potential employer. Generally, this isn't true. Why? Because a generic letter of recommendation isn't tailored to speak to the needs of a particular company. It's similar to the resume or cover letter that tries to be all things to all people, and ends up being not much of anything to anybody. And, because it's addressed: "To Whom it May Concern," it doesn't have the credibility of a person-to-person phone call. Unless you are going to a foreign country or someone specifically asks you for a letter of recommendation, rely on verbal references. They are more personal and flexible in focusing on why an individual employer would be fortunate to hire you.

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