The purpose of providing references is to close the deal. It isn't to discover if you are telling the truth about your dates of employment, verify that you've demonstrated the proper skills for the job, or even to assure the hiring authority that he’s making the right decision to hire you - though each reason contributes.
If a company is having difficulty deciding which of two individuals to make an offer to, references are usually the deciding factor. If more job seekers understood this, they wouldn't view the phrase "references provided upon request" so casually.
What constitutes a reference? Primarily, people to whom you have reported in your previous jobs. Secondarily, if you've been in your current position a longtime, someone who has left the company, or someone you trust who has reported to you or with whom you have worked closely. In some industries, providing a reference from outside the company – trades, vendors, or long-time customers – supplies an additional perspective that a former employer cannot.
A reference is neither personal nor generic. Your friend on the neighborhood baseball team may say you're a great team member, but baseball doesn't equate to the corporate world. References addressed to: To Whom It May Concern aren't of much value either because they're non-exclusive. By their very nature, generic references are positive – or they wouldn't have been written and handed to the departing employee. Employers want to speak to the reference themselves and ask their own questions - without the candidate knowing what was said.
As I've said repeatedly, finding your perfect job is about selling a product, and that product is you. If you want your references to help you close the sale, you need to help them. The standard method of most reference preparation goes as far as the job seeker calling the references and asking each person if he'll act as one, then failing to cue them in during the process as to who will be calling. Providing your reference with the name of the company and the person phoning not only removes the unknown, but makes the call more likely to be returned faster More than one offer has been held up for need of references.
And if those two reasons aren’t enough to ask their permission, how about that it's the respectful thing to do? Some candidates don't even think to track down their references and ask for permission. The names and numbers are simply listed on a sheet of paper and given to the hiring authority. Would you like to know how many times I was provided with contact information only to find the person was long gone from that company? Better me - a recruiter - than a prospective employer.
Additionally, failing to provide the person with a copy of your most recent resume so that he has both your dates of employment and your accomplishments in front of him when the hiring authority calls is to deal yourself the ultimate wild card. And failing to tell your reference about the position for which you're interviewing and what the company is looking for in their new hire compounds that. When you provide this additional information, you not only prompt his memory, but you give him information with which to work. It helps him speak directly to what you want addressed.
Now you've provided the prospective employer with verified information from a credible, objective and informed source. Effectively, you've eliminated the chance of your previous boss saying, "Well, he was a great employee. And he met all his goals, as far as I can remember. Sure, I'd rehire him." About all that reference does is tell the prospective employer that you weren't great enough to stand out in your previous boss's memory.
All of this is equally applicable if you were fired. Under most circumstances, truth is the only path, and making sure that a reference doesn't backfire on you is all the more reason to contact that supervisor. Just because a person or company isn’t on your reference list, doesn't mean people don't "know" others in that same industry.
It's difficult to summon the courage to ask your previous employer to provide you with a reference when you were fired. But many of those references come out better than you'd suppose; the only negative tends to be the one surrounding the reason you were discharged.
When you realize the power of references and the influence they can have in securing your perfect job, then you understand how important it is to stay in touch. Then when you need them, you know where to contact them.
Put the extra work into helping your references be a reference. Since you’ve made it this far in finding your perfect job, why gamble and leave the home stretch to chance?
- Judi Perkins
Judi was a search consultant for 20 years in the contingency and retained markets. She now gives job seekers the unique understanding and insight into the psychology of the hiring process and teaches renegade ways of job seeking that bring results. The result is excitement and a rewarding job instead of increasing frustration and despair as the months continue to pass. . Sign up for her free newsletter at
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