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How to Manage Your References to Close - NOT Kill - Job Opportunities

By Jeff Lipschultz

Typically, when you get to the stage in the interviewing process where a hiring company asks for references, you are very close to getting the job. No guarantees, of course, and this last step is critical. Many job offers are killed at this stage of the hiring process.

Choose and Manage Your References to Help Your Job Search

Sometimes the "Reference Check" is the tipping point in hiring manager's decision process. You may be in a virtual tie for the job with someone else, and references may differentiate the two of you.

Or, bad feedback from a reference could make the company rethink their opinion of you. Obviously, your references are an important part of the process, so you must be very careful how you select and prepare them.

Select Your References Carefully

In most cases, hiring managers and recruiters will be asking for supervisors as references. They may also ask for direct reports if you are a manager.

In addition, they may ask for personal references and colleagues who you worked with at other companies (perhaps as their project liaison, salesperson, or consultant).

Peers' opinions tend to carry less weight, as these references tend to be friends who are biased and may offer very little about your professional attributes (like following directions, problem-solving, creative thinking).

With this in mind, you need to select former supervisors who know you well. Clearly, you need to have had some key accomplishments within their organization. If you only worked for the person for a short time, they will have less to offer the background checker.

Unfortunately, providing little feedback indicates there is little to say that is good about you (assumption: there is plenty to say that is bad about you).

If you have no way of finding your past supervisor, you might try another supervisor at that company who was able to observe your work. You'll need to explain why you're unable to contact your direct supervisor.

I recommend you keep tabs on former bosses because someday you'll want to use them as references.

Be prepared for a background checker to ask for one more than you provided in your list of references. Sometimes they want to "catch you off guard" and have you provide a reference who's not been prepped in the past. And some will even pick one for you (and/or ask for a manager at a particular job).


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Manage Your References' Visibility

The days of adding "References Available Upon Request" to your resume are over, in my opinion. Anyone reading your resume already knows this.

I do not recommend including references on a resume because then you do not control the timing of the reference checking process.

You need to know when references are being contacted so you can prepare them for the call.

You may also want to rotate your references if you think you are overburdening one of them with too many calls.

I counsel my hiring companies to only call (or have me call) references when they are serious. There is no reason to call references when they haven't yet met the candidate.

Choose the "Right" Reference for the "Right Situation"

Another reason to limit access to your list of references is that you might want different references depending on the job you have applied for.

Different references may have different levels of credibility and authority in different industries, professions, or, even, in different locations, so carefully selecting the references for a specific employer or situation may increase the probability of landing that job.

Prepare Your References Properly

If you can, ask the background checker to give you a few hours before they start contacting your references. This gives you time to alert the references on your list to anticipate a call and confirm that they are available.

1.  Confirm who will be calling so that your references know who to expect.

Not everyone answers the phone these days when a strange name/number shows up on caller ID.  So being able to share this information makes it more likely that the call will be answered and the response provided quickly.

2.  Prepare your references for the call.

This requested delay also allows you to talk with your references about the company that will be calling and the position.

  • You might suggest a few key attributes, skills, and related projects that you know the caller will want to hear about. Perhaps you have also learned (through the interviewing process) what are unique qualities they are looking for - anything you can have the reference share, that ties back to positive feedback you got from your interview, can reaffirm your standing.
  • A background checker may ask about past salary and your reason for leaving the company. You may need to make sure the reference would say something consistent with what you've already told the hiring company.

    It is typically acceptable to say salary information is not shared externally.
  • Another popular question for background checking is "Would you hire this person back to the company if you were given the chance?" I hope your reference would say "yes."
  • Good background checkers want balanced feedback from your references. They want to hear the good stuff, but also want to hear about your weaknesses. You might discuss what those weaknesses are, as you may have addressed them since leaving that company.

Impact of Your LinkedIn References

For those of you who have references or endorsements on LinkedIn, keep in mind that those people may be asked questions about you without notifying you first or asking your permission. Make sure to remind the references when you're on a job hunt in case they are contacted (those giving endorsements might be too much to manage).

Bottom Line

References play a key role in your job search process. Most references can do a great job of representing you, but only if you choose them wisely and keep them informed.

More About References for Your Job Search


About the author...

Job-Hunt's Working with Recruiters Expert Jeff Lipschultz is a 20+ year veteran in management, hiring, and recruiting of all types of business and technical professionals. He has worked in industries ranging from telecom to transportation to dotcom. Jeff is a founding partner of A-List Solutions, a Dallas-based recruiting and employment consulting company. He is a unique recruiter with Lean Engineering experience and a Six Sigma Blackbelt. Learn more about him through his company site alistsolutions.com. Follow Jeff on Twitter (@JLipschultz) and on GooglePlus.


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