Many Job Seekers Don’t Think About This Until It’s Too Late

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

With the average tenure in a role hovering around 4.2 years, chances are, there’s a job search in your future. If you’ve updated your resume with relevant accomplishments, built a strong online brand, and practiced for the interview, you’re way ahead of the game.

But there’s one more thing you’ll need to land the offer, and it can be the deciding factor.

In a study conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), nearly 90% of employers confirmed they checked professional references as a final stage in the hiring process.

So if a new role is in your future, begin planning now. While it’s not unusual for a potential employer to ask for references as early as the application, usually they’ll wait until you’re a finalist before spending time reaching out. Here’s how to be prepared:

  • A neutral reference is a poor reference. Most employers ask applicants for two to three professional (non-family) references and will be wary of candidates who are unable to find three individuals willing to vouch for their skills and character. The best references are people who’ve been in a supervisory role such as a direct boss, client, team leader or professor (if you’re a recent graduate), and who can provide specific details about your contributions and abilities.
  • Inquiries vary. At a basic level, a potential employer will want to verify your previous employment, including dates and title. Beyond that, inquiries can vary from your compensation, attendance and punctuality to your achievements, attitude, and initiative. When speaking to your former employer, a common question asked is would they rehire you if given the chance.
  • Policies also vary. Some previous employers will only disclose your dates of employment, but will not share salary or other details. This can be helpful to know. Also, to avoid liability, some companies have internal policies that prevent current employees from providing external references, so if someone on your list has this constraint, find someone who is willing to speak freely about how amazing you are.
  • Be strategic. Aside from choosing individuals who will sing your praises, also consider factors that could strengthen the referrer’s credibility such as status, length and nature of your relationship, industry knowledge, or people who have seen you in a variety of projects that are related to the role you’re applying to. While it’s fine to include a colleague on your reference list who is a peer, a hirer may not weigh this as favorably since, let’s face it – we all have work friends willing to say positive things.
  • Prep your references. It’s rude to spring a last minute reference request on someone, but worse, you’ll miss an opportunity to get the most out of the referral. Let your potential references know you’re in a job search, share your current resume and the companies/roles you’re seeking, and provide some details about what messages you’d like them to convey. If you know an employer is concerned about a skill gap, your reference can point out how resourceful you are in learning new tasks.
  • Make it easy to contact your references. People are on the go more than ever, and it’s rare for individuals to answer unsolicited phone calls. Offer potential employers a variety of ways to connect with your references including an email address. If you know your reference will be traveling or otherwise unreachable at certain times, relay this information and find out when the best time to connect will be.
  • Employers are not limited to the references you choose. It’s not uncommon for potential employers to use social media or personal contacts to learn more about you. This is completely within the boundaries, so be aware of what you convey online. Also, it can be relatively easy to figure out who your former colleagues are through sites like LinkedIn, so don’t be surprised if someone on your contact list gets a message from a potential employer looking to learn more about you.
  • They may want to speak to your current boss. It’s not unusual for a company to want to speak to your current boss. However, most will understand that you are in a stealth search and don’t want to tip your hand until you have an offer. Sometimes you can get around this by providing other references who will suffice, but if not, it’s likely the HR Team will be able to make the offer conditional upon this conversation so you’ll have a chance to speak to your current boss first.
  • Letters of reference are supplemental. When hiring, the new employer will want to speak to someone directly. A Letter of Reference can’t hurt, but it likely won’t be enough to forego the process of providing names of professional references that they can contact.
  • Prepare if you think something may be a problem. If you’re struggling to come up with three stellar professional references, you’re not alone. But, you need to figure it out. Consider volunteer roles, customers or even project team leaders. A fabulous reference from several years ago may be better than a lukewarm one from your current boss. If you can’t find a creative solution, give the employer a heads up (e.g., “Part of the reason I’m looking is because my boss resigned and I don’t see eye-to-eye on the strategy with my new manager. I’d prefer to provide references who can be more objective about my qualifications.”). Be brief, but clear.

If you’ve not given thought to your reference list, start now. It can be tough to whip up three people who are agreeable and available on the spot, and you don’t want to learn at the eleventh hour that someone you’re counting on is unable or unwilling to provide support.

And, if someone responds to your request for a reference with “I may not be the best person…”, believe them and look for someone else. You’ve made it this far in the hiring process – don’t skimp at the finish line.

Happy hunting!

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