We asked two dozen hirers to give us their takes on the whole reference process. Do references persuade? Are they merely a formality? Does anyone change his/her mind after reading a reference? Here’s what we learned.
1. A reference is a check on the candidate’s grasp of reality. If nothing the reference mentions matches the candidate’s declared strengths and accomplishments that’s a problem. “I had a candidate whose leadership skills were impressive until his former boss said the candidate was “easily managed.”
2. Written references are often not helpful. Let’s face it. Few people like, or have the time, to write letters that support a candidate’s skills and experience with the telling detail. “Examples are key,” all my hirers reported. Note: That means the candidate must supply the writer with great anecdotes and details — not depend on a boss you worked for ten years ago to remember. “Remember when” is the candidate’s game to win or lose.
3. Lukewarm references are the worst because they invite intensive questioning. A former boss who praises a candidate to the skies gets fewer questions than one who hesitates over each question asked. If you know a reference is going to less than enthused you must warn the hirer. Don’t even consider letting the hirer find out from experience.
4. Headhunters have limitless ways to get information on candidates. If you’re approached by a head hunter and there are any secrets in your past, explain them. A head hunter will not present a candidate without a very thorough background check. I have had clients who lied about material facts and were invariably found out. (I told them to be truthful but they weren’t!) Two big sins include lying about periods of unemployment and alleged awards and degrees.
5. Coach your references. Don’t leave your references without direction. Send each an updated resume and give each a different set of talking points. Coach one with examples of your leadership skills; one with examples of your management skills, and one with examples of how well you developed talent in that job. Make sure the reference wants to help. Say, “Do you have time to be a reference?”
6. Thank well and promptly. Afterwards you owe each reference a hand-written note of thanks as well as an email letting each know whether you got an offer and if you took the job. You would not believe how many people never inform their references of the outcome! You may need these people again.
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