It's a wonderful world; you can buy anything. Now, for about a hundred bucks, you can hire a service to call your references and find out if they're saying nasty things about you. (Judging from their ads, some of these services are actually in the business of helping you sue people for defaming you.) But, what nut would provide an employer with list of questionable references in the first place?
In fact, you can check your own references to find out what they're saying and you can even influence – within ethical boundaries – what they say. There's no magic to this; it won't cost you any more than the price of a phone call; and you're less likely to encounter surprises if you act preemptively.
What no one tells you about references
Before we get further into this, let's cover a few important things about references. First, any smart employer (and certainly any good headhunter) will check not only the references you provide, but also additional references that he will dig up on his own. Face it, an employer wants to know whom he's hiring. So, if you have a spotty history, expect that someone is going to find out. It's your responsibility to do what you can to alleviate possible problems.
Don't rob the reference to pay the resume writer
Second, references are the poor relations to the resume. People will spend hundreds of dollars and lots of time on their resume, but they'll do next to nothing to spruce up their references. Let me remind you: people matter more than paper when you're looking for a good job. Devote twice as much time to your references as to your resume. In fact, if you handle your references properly, you won't need a resume because a good reference can introduce you to a good employer. (That's another topic.)
Give them what they can't ask for
Finally, in a world where detailed reference checking is almost impossible because legal risks make references zip their lips, you can positively startle your prospective new employer by ensuring that he gets very informative reference reports on you. Employers are thrilled when references volunteer lots of detailed information – information the employer can't come out and ask for. (Many employers are restricted from asking for anything but confirmation of employment.) So, giving your references permission to talk about you can give you a real edge over competitors whose references will provide nothing more than dates of employment.
Take care of your references
In a nutshell, it pays to tend to your references. Here's how to do it.
Select your references carefully. Pick references who will emphasize your wonderful attributes, but make sure they will satisfy the employer so he won't need to track down more references on his own. This is a good mix: a recent boss, a recent co-worker, and a recent customer or vendor who knows the quality of your work.
Call your references before you need them. I don't mean the week before an employer needs to talk to them. I mean before you start job hunting. It's very important to stay in touch with people you may need to use as references long before you need them. Then, give them a heads-up just before the reference call comes. But, if you're stuck and the need is immediate, don't leave anything to chance. Call the reference and renew your acquaintance.
Ask permission. Before taking the next step (below), ask the person if he'd feel comfortable being your reference. If he says yes, thank him and say, "I hope I can return the favor someday." The reciprocity will remind the reference to put some thought into what he's going to say about you.
Refresh the reference's memory. The single biggest problem references have is remembering you in enough detail to provide useful information to an employer. Help them out. This is where you can be influential without compromising anyone's integrity. "I was going over in my mind the projects I did during the time we worked together. Would you mind if we reviewed that together?"
Review your work relationship. Briefly outline projects you worked on together and the outcomes; your contributions to the company's success; special challenges or problems you encountered and how you dealt with them; awards or recognition you received; and so on. Rather than dominate this discussion, mention a topic and ask, "Do you recall anything about that?" Let the reference take the lead, and keep it honest.
Get the reference to talk. Basic psychological research about memory shows that a person remembers something better if he says it out loud first. Let your reference recount his knowledge of your work history in his own words. Ask him questions that induce him to verbalize his judgment of you. Odds are good that, having used certain words and expressions once, he'll use them again when the employer calls. (This cuts two ways, of course.)
The point of talking to your reference in advance is to help refresh his memory so he can speak intelligently and accurately about you. Do not suggest any exaggerations or make an argument about how great a worker you were. Just help the person with the timeline and the facts. But let him do the talking. In the end, you will decide whether or not to present this person as a reference.
Check your own references – for free. If you think you have a problem reference, test it. You need not hire a special service to do this for you. Have a trusted friend who is also a manager at a company (any company) call and check the reference. If the reference is a sour one, you may have a problem. What you do about it is up to you, but I believe the best defense is an offense: have enough credible positive references to offset the bad one. Just remember that while a bad reference doesn't necessarily make a bad reputation or cost you a job, a truly bad reputation is likely your own fault – and an employer deserves to know about that. (I never said I'd help you fix truly bad references. That's another matter entirely. I'm a great advocate of the freedom to provide candid, honest references. These are important not only in business, but in life.)
You would never walk into an interview without thoughtfully preparing your presentation in advance (at least, not if you've been reading Ask The Headhunter regularly). Would you want a reference to talk to an employer about you with any less thought and preparation?
Take care of your references. Do it with respect and do it responsibly. But do it, if you want your references to take care of you.
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