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Resumes win interviews, so like most people your job search has probably focused on writing your and tweaking your resume and landing job interviews. You probably haven't given your references much thought, but in a tough job market references win job offers. You must be certain that your references will seal the deal, not blow it away.
A primary reason that one candidate will win a job offer over another is the quality of that candidate’s references. Human resource professionals say that about half of all checked references fall into the mediocre to poor category. Some of the comments they've heard when checking references include:
- "Company policy prohibits us from saying anything. We can only verify dates of employment and title."
- "All I can suggest is that you check his references very carefully."
- "Are you certain she gave my name as a reference?"
- "We miss him very much. Too bad he was let go."
- "After we settle our lawsuit."
- "He’s still in health care? Well bless his heart."
The better the job and the higher the pay, the tougher the competition you’ll face for that job and the more stringent the screening process. If you're being considered for a responsible professional job, it's likely that your references will be checked.
Take Control of Your Destiny
Talking with potential references long before their services are required gives you the opportunity to screen both the message and the messengers you will use. When you know exactly what former managers and colleagues will say about you, you can use the references you choose with greater confidence, because you have much greater control over who gets to say what about you.
Identify Potential References
Start by making a list of your prospective references. Begin with your most recent/relevant job and work backwards from there. Usually references only get checked with immediately prior employers, but the more elevated the position the further back your references are likely to be checked. Identify people who have seen you in action, ideally performing well in adverse conditions. This list will include:
- Managers and supervisors
- Project managers for special assignments
- Suppliers and clients
After completing your list of potential references, track them down and talk to them. If a reference is local, a personal meeting over coffee or lunch can be nice touch; a phone call is usually sufficient, but an email request is too impersonal.
Help Your References Help You
Start the conversation by catching up on each other’s lives since last you spoke. Be sure to cover what you have been doing professionally, especially any new skills you’ve developed, the projects you’ve been engaged with, and how you've added experience and turned old weaknesses into new strengths.
Explain that you are in transition and ask if s/he would feel comfortable acting as one of your references “when the time comes.” Share a few details of the job you're targeting. Finish by saying you’ll be in touch again when an offer is close.
When a Specific Offer Is on the Horizon
When an offer is made and references requested, tell the employer that you will be in touch the next day with names and contact information. Choose the references you will use and reach out to each one again. Share the company's name, the job title, and the responsibilities. Tell each reference that company checkers are likely to ask for a rating of your skills in the following areas:
- Written and oral communication
- Time management and organization (multitasking)
- Short- and long-term planning
- Analytical/critical thinking/problem-solving
- Teamwork/interpersonal skills and leadership
- Creativity in tackling the job’s ongoing challenges
- Personal integrity and overall performance
If the job is in management, a reference may also be asked about:
- Managerial and employee-relations skills
- Crisis management
- Financial skills
References may also be asked if they would enthusiastically recommend you, what their thoughts are on the circumstances of your separation from your previous jobs, and whether they would like to provide any additional comments.
If they’re willing to take the time, it can be helpful to review your references’ response to these topics. When you take the initiative to make this happen, you are arming your reference with all she needs to give you a stellar recommendation.
Make it clear that in this security-conscious and harshly competitive world, the quality of your references is critical to winning the job offer. Once you land a new position, be sure to call your references and let them know the details. And don't forget to offer your services if there is anything you can do in return!
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