How to Handle References

Anthony Balderrama, CareerBuilder.com writer

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Once you began the hunt for a new job, you updated your résumé, took your suit to the cleaners, practiced your handshake and interviewed yourself in the mirror until your answers came out just right. You’re prepared for everything.

Except a reference check.

Employers do make the call.

Many applicants are under the impression that employers no longer ask for references or that they never actually call them. Not so, says Linda Finkle, executive coach and CEO of Incedo Group, an organizational coaching and consulting company. “Reference checking is a critical factor in hiring.”

A reference check can reveal information — like lacking a college degree — that candidates omit or even lie about during interviews. “I found out during a reference check the candidate had been terminated for sexual harassment,” Finkle remarks.

A conversation with a reference can also shed light on an applicant’s personality in a way that a résumé cannot. An interviewer can be charmed by an applicant, only to find out a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality was a problem at a previous job, Finkle says.

An unfavorable reference check can even cost candidates a job that they thought was a guarantee. Heather Mayfield, vice president of operations and training for Snelling Staffing Services, has seen employers extend an offer letter that can be revoked if a reference check is not favorable.

Who makes a good reference?

Depending on your line of work, a reference can be someone who was your supervisor, co-worker, client or customer. But picking the right ones can be tricky if you don’t know what to look for. One of the biggest mistakes Mayfield says she encounters is a reference who can only provide the applicant’s dates of employment and job title, and nothing else.

You don’t want to leave the hiring manager feeling as though you’re wasting her time by providing useless references who don’t know much about you. Mayfield recommends picking references who will distinguish you from the other candidates interviewing for the position.

Before you turn in a list of references, she recommends calling them to ask if they are willing to be a reference and to make sure you’re both on the same page about your work history and even your personal relationship. Maybe you thought your last boss found your sense of humor hilarious, but really he thought you didn’t take your job seriously.

“The best way to avoid a reference passing along unfavorable information is to thoroughly prep your reference before you share the name with the hiring manager,” Mayfield advises. “By telling your reference about the position requirements and then asking how they see you adding value to the organization, you should get a very good feel for how the reference will respond.”

References should be prepared to answer a variety of questions about you. “A good hiring manager asks questions that will solicit both the strengths and weaknesses when conducting a reference check,” Mayfield says.

When Finkle contacts references, she wants to know about their relationship with the applicant, if there were any problems that interfered with his or her performance, how the applicant handles difficult situations, and if there is room for improvement.

Being sneaky doesn’t work.

Sometimes a hiring manager doesn’t have to pick up the phone to see some warning signs of a bad applicant. “If a candidate has no supervisors as references from any positions, it is indeed a big red flag,” Finkle says. These candidates could be hiding a history of unfavorable departures or just a bad work ethic. She is also wary of a reference list that contains an incorrect phone number or only cell phone numbers, or simply a list of names but no job titles.

“Companies have gotten wise to candidates that list inaccurate contact numbers on their reference list—perhaps pointing them to call a friend’s cell phone as opposed to the company’s HR department,” Mayfield warns. If they want, they can find the HR department’s number themselves and verify the information. “Online networking sites also provide a way for the hiring company to connect with potential references that the candidate may not have listed directly.”

Another red flag — and a good example of why you should call each person beforehand — is when references are surprised to be listed by the applicant at all. Finkle says that sometimes they don’t even remember the applicant. You don’t want the hiring manager finding this out before you.

Reference checks benefit you, too.

In addition to basic factual information, a reference can reassure an employer that the person is right for the job and provide tips on what kind of manager the applicant needs, Finkle says.

The thing to remember is that hiring managers are not out to get you; they want to learn more about you. Their goal is to hire the best candidate for the job, and that means somebody they want to work with every day. Good references can not only help you get the job but also a boss and co-workers that you like.


Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.


Last Updated: 17/12/2007 - 4:52 PM


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