Question

professional referencesI’m in the final phase of getting a job offer I really want. They already told me what the offer is, but they need to check my references before they deliver it in writing. I know my professional references are good but how do I really know what a former boss or colleague is going to say? Your advice will affect whose names I give out. Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

You know what your references will say by controlling it in advance. You’d never go to a job interview without being prepared. So, why would you let your references talk to an employer without preparing them?

Having checked thousands of references — always on the phone, never via e-mail — I’ve found that most are bleah at best. A bad reference is rare and a superlative reference is uncommon. But without a lot of prompting from me, a candidate’s references usually have little to say. They’re unprepared.

How your professional references can hurt you

This is bad for two reasons. First, an unprepared reference comes off as unenthusiastic. Enthusiasm about the candidate in question is paramount in a reference check. An awful lot of insight and information about a candidate is folded into the way their references speak about them.

Second, uninspiring comments about a candidate can count against them; for example, if other problems arise with your candidacy, there needs to be some countervailing fervor. If a reference can’t speak enthusiastically about the candidate, I’ll go with a candidate whose references can.

Here’s the tragedy. People get rated #2 or #3 in highly competitive interviews not because they lack necessary qualities, but because their references aren’t prepared to deliver clear, compelling opinions about them.

Control what your references will say about you

Don’t lose a job offer because of your references. To pull this off, you must select professional references that will launch you into the new job you want. How do you choose whose names to submit? Well, you need to know what they’re going to say, right?

The robo-reference problem
What if an employer wants your references to fill out online forms or to talk to a robot, rather than take a call? See Before you risk your references.
The best way to control what your references will say is to coach them!

I’m going to offer a few observations and suggestions about how to control — yes, control — your references. I don’t mean manipulate; I mean prepare them to deliver opinions and comments that will make an employer want to hire you. There is nothing dishonest or underhanded about this. We’re going to exploit some simple laws of psychology. We’re going to prepare your references to do their best for you.

How to prepare your professional references

1. Call them
When you need a former boss or co-worker to step up and deliver a warm, enthusiastic endorsement for you, don’t make the request via e-mail. Make your request just as warm and personal. Use the phone. This is critical because only a conversation will enable you to control what they say. Of course, you must start by asking if they’d be willing to give you a reference. If they agree, tell them who is going to call, and very briefly outline the job you want.

2. Help them remember
When an employer calls, most references are taken by surprise. They’re in the middle of something else. They’re not thinking about you and your time working together. That’s why you need to call them first, to remind them what made you a great employee and to prepare them about the job you want. (If you have a solid relationship with the person, this is where you can disclose what you’re doing. “To be frank, I know how busy you are. I figured that recapping our work together might help with the reference call.”)

3. Say it out loud
Here’s a fun fact from the world of cognitive psychology: People remember better when they write something down or say it out loud first. More important, in this case, is that people also tend to repeat what they’ve already said or heard. So, when you ask your former co-worker or boss to serve as a  reference, recount your past experiences together out loud. Trust me: They are then likely to parrot the words from your conversation to the employer that calls them. This is how you’ll know in advance what they are most likely to say.

4. Recount successes
Ask if they remember a successful project you worked on together. Say this: “I know we faced some challenges, but I’m proud of how we did X, Y and Z.” Ask what they remember about it. Guide your discussion so they will recount out loud (a) what your contribution was, (b) how you did it, and (c) how it paid off. Let them say it so they can hear it.

5. Map skills
Briefly suggest which of your skills (that were so valuable to your old employer) will map onto the new job you want, and how they will pay off to the new employer. Then…

6. Ask for advice and insight
Briefly describe the challenges of the new job. Ask your colleague’s advice about which of your skills might contribute to your success. Ask how they suggest you should approach it.

7. What did you do best?
Help the colleague express out loud what you did best at your old job.

8. What would make you a better worker?
Ask this: “If you could give my new boss some advice about how to help me perform better, what would you say?” (This is a subtle way of influencing the answer to the infamous reference checker’s question, “What are this person’s weaknesses?”)

Prepare your professional references

As we’ve said, you prepare for your job interviews, so prepare your references for a reference call. People parrot what they hear. Help your references parrot themselves. Gently make them say it. Helping them say it out loud to you helps them remember it for the reference call.

Don’t expect to do everything I’ve suggested! Just what you’re most comfortable with and what there’s time for. And of course, there is no guarantee any of this will work — but it’s the best way I know to have some measure of control over your references. Don’t forget to thank your reference for their kind help, for taking a trip down memory lane, and for taking time to speak with who you hope will be your next employer.

Finally, say this: “If I can ever return the favor, don’t hesitate to call me.”

Objections?

Now I’ll try to anticipate a couple of objections you may have:

“I don’t feel comfortable doing this.”

Then why submit the person as a reference? Please think about it. If a former colleague is not likely to take a few minutes to discuss your experiences working together, do you really think they’ll help you get hired?

“I don’t have any references I know well enough to do what you suggest!”

This is a wake-up call. Start cultivating colleagues now, so you can count on their references in the future!

Do you have references you can count on? How did you cultivate them? How do you avoid awkwardness when requesting a reference? Has a reference ever torpedoed a job opportunity for you? Has a reference ever clearly tipped the scales to help you get hired? What tips would you add to the list above?

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14 Comments
  1. As usual, well put.

    Some applications require references up front. I pass on those. My reference’s time and attention is valuable. More valuable than my own.

    I always call them about the company. And what I want to emphasize. And it is not unusual for there to be aspects of a new role that is not part of our share work history. So…what can they discuss that will position me in a positive way?

    And keep in mind, if someone is willing to be a reference, they want us to succeed. Former supervisors? Maybe not so much. When I go on a hunt, I have a trusted friend call supervisors and references, so I know if I need to be prepared.

    Side note: I know a recruiter that has the job candidate schedule the time with the references. He does this because it assures they are respectful of the reference’s time, things will not be hurried, and the reference will be prepared.

    • @Gregory: Wise practices and great advice! Too often, candidates treat the reference check as an annoyance. They need to manage it. Otherwise it’s like spending a week climbing the mountain, only to leave your boots outside your tent so a marmot can chew them up before you need to make the final, treacherous ascent.

  2. The WSJ ran a related article on the topic a couple of days ago:

    When Job References Still Make Sense Before Hiring
    They’re a less popular way to vet job candidates than they used to be, but some bosses won’t finish a search without them

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/when-job-references-still-make-sense-before-hiring-11619352000?st=8fh6hh3vs45p6js&reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink

    • @Monkey Boy: Thanks for that link. I missed the article.

  3. I’d say I only get asked for references about a third of the time, and that percentage goes down all the time (it’s now been about 1.5 years since I was last actively on the job market so trends may have changed again, but that was a very long term trend I’d been seeing my entire career; note this covers both full time employment and contracting). I’ve found that 99% of the time people ask for them they never call the references, especially those who were most adamant that they were necessary before moving on in the process (in addition to contacting them ahead of time, I try to casually follow up with my references after I hear back from companies that were supposed to contact them and they almost never do). However, for those companies that do take the time, it seems to be an oversized factor in their selection; nearly every position I’ve gotten that did talk to my references told me it was a deciding factor in my favor.

    I will note that it is not uncommon (although not yet common either) for folks to contact other people I don’t supply as references they know in some way if they figure out we have some type of connection; this often happens before a first interview, although sometimes it happens later in the process. In some cases I’ve had this happen with people I barely worked with or barely knew and had no idea what they’d say or, in several cases, how to contact them to follow up if I felt inclined to do so. I don’t think I’ve ever had someone who did this request additional references chosen by me (or accept them if I offered because I wanted them to have the more controlled feedback).

  4. One of my references is someone I used to date. She also got me a job in her company (I don’t work there anymore – but I had that job for awhile – it just happened to be making the same kind of device my previous company made.). Yes, my wife was fine with all this.

    Bottom line: If you break up with someone, do it amicably – you never know when that person might get you a job!

  5. I’m almost always happy to serve as a reference when requested, although I am sometimes surprised by a request from someone who should know the reference couldn’t be positive and I decline.

    For those where I will provide a reference, my standard response is, “I’m sure there are particular skills or experiences that are relevant for this position. What do you want me to highlight?” Even with this prompting, very few offer any specific guidance, which I’ve always thought was shortsighted. It also puts the onus on my to figure out what to say, which is a bit annoying. (Do you really want to annoy a reference?)

    • @Annette: Like resumes, references have become trivialized by an employment system that isn’t really interested in matching the right person to a job. It’s all about driving traffic to job boards that can feed keywords to insatiable Applicant Tracking Software.

      It’s no wonder job seekers don’t bother to do references right. It’s just another box to check off on the application.

  6. good topic, good advice. some related things come to mind.
    1.People who will serve as references are special, and should have some priority in your network. Keep in touch with them. Don’t be a stranger. Especially prior bosses.
    2.Nick’s very 1st point seems obvious but is worth repeating. Ask, get an OK to use someone as a reference. I bet every recruiter has a story of calling a reference who was totally blindsided. For example, the one I called who said “I can’t believe he used me as a reference!!” and then threw him under the bus.
    *3.Set expectations. Forewarn them it’s a maybe. And brief them who you expect to contact them.
    *4.Not only should you prep them as Nick describes, but send them a link or a cc of the job description. And don’t be shy about giving them questions to ask the caller…it’s not a one way show. you can turn references calls into a good source of info for you. For example A good reasonable one is to ask the caller to describe the job, & what they are expecting from this person. and ask more questions of them as they do so. If it’s a warm body, they won’t get much other than a warm body called them. If its a knowledgeable recruiter or the hiring manager, or designate they should be able to brief your reference well.
    *5 Ask your reference to debrief you if they get a call ASAP. Find out what questions were asked, what they said, and as noted above compare that with what you’ve been told. How consistent is the info? If you’ve picked a good reference team, very likely they played the game, been or are a hiring manager themselves and can easily slip into the role in interviewing the interviewer.
    *6.Feedback to the references. What happened? Don’t ghost them.

    This discussion and advice applies to advocates, unsolicited references. For example people who “walk your resume to a hiring contact.” Really nice gesture & help..but so much better if you prep them. Know where your resume is, what rev, and who’s got it. A friend tells you” send me a cc of your resume. Nice. And then what? What’s going to happen to it? who’s getting it? And most important & where your opportunity lies. is What do they say when they hand it over? They should say what you’d like them to say, & how you’d like to be positioned, and any details on the role and hiring manager.

    Help them, help you.

    For example, in one of my between jobs adventures, a good trusted contact said he had a good contact in a good company target. Director of Development. Not practicing what I just preached I gave him a cc. And he got back to me and said he gave it to Director telling him I was a good development manager. NOOOOOOOO! there’s no way that would sell. I was a good Software QA Manager. But once a seed is planted, it’s a case of not being able to put the toothpaste back in the tube. That pitch and it’s dismissal was burned into that Director’s head. That’s when I learn my lesson. You must control destination and message.

    • @Don: I love your (4) and (5) — excellent suggestions! Great tips for optimizing the value of every reference!

  7. Like some of the other commenters suggested, I ask some of my references to probe the caller when my future boss is checking references. In one instance, my reference and the future boss had such good rapport and such a meaningful conversation that the new employer increased my bonus percentage by 10 percentage points when the written offer came in. Needless to say, I treated that reference to a nice dinner.

  8. I think the original person asking the question has the wrong idea what a professional reference is. They should already know, since they should have spoken with their references in advance of giving their names to vouch for them.

    But sometimes fate might serve you a curve ball. For one friend, I apologized to the president of a southwestern university for a late response. My original letter was destroyed on September 11, 2001. Guess where I was on September 10th. My friend got the job.

    But more recently, a friend asked me to write one for him. This was a “pitch for the angels,” as the now famous Twilight Zone episode read. This particular employer wasn’t worth the trouble, but my friend was.

    He called me later to follow up, and I asked him, “This was for sainthood, right?” He never got the courtesy of a response from that employer. So I said, “Hey, we can still use this!”

    Actually, he doesn’t need my help for sainthood. He’ll make it there all on his own.

    Don’t sweat this. You did your homework, got the right people engaged, and gave this employer exactly what they requested. That’s all you can do. Now let nature take its course.

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