What others say about you is often far more important than what you say about yourself. And that’s especially true for when you’re seeking a job.
“Prospective employers really take into consideration what job references say about a candidate,” says Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Allison & Taylor, a reference and background checking firm. “You’re only going to say good things about yourself, and personal references are only going to offer positive remarks, but professional references are more detached and will be more candid, loose-lipped and revealing.”
They’re a chance for the employer to get a clear picture of who you are — so you’ll want to make sure your references paint a pretty picture.
“If the references are consistent with the image the candidate presents during the interview, then an employer may likely give more credit to the statements made by the candidate,” says Al Coleman Jr, author of "Secrets to Success: The Definitive Career Development Guide for New and First Generation Professionals." If the references diverge from the image presented by the candidate, that may be a red flag for the potential employer, he adds.
In today’s challenging job market, a negative review can easily result in a candidate’s being disqualified from further consideration. “They often have numerous good, qualified candidates,” Shane says. “So checking references is one easy way to weed some out.” Although most employers conduct their reference checks late in the hiring process, some do them earlier, as to eliminate candidates with unfavorable references before spending unnecessary time interviewing them, Shane says.
Because professional praise or criticism can make or break your chance of landing the job, it’s imperative that you choose your references wisely.
“Never assume that a former boss or human resources manager will sing your praises,” Shane says. “They may have seemed to like you when you worked for them, but on the phone with your prospective employer they might end up saying something damaging. Employers love that, because they want to hear from someone who will talk about you good, bad or indifferent.”
Who are good references?
“Supervisors, former colleagues or professors can be great references, whereas, friends and family typically don’t provide references that are quite as impactful,” Coleman says. The best people are those who have real knowledge of how your skills and capabilities will fit the potential opportunity. “You also want to ensure that the referrer has a good reputation, or a position that projects a strong reputation in the mind of the potential employer,” he adds.
Shane agrees. “Ask yourself if the person will be perceived as a key, or at least credible, reference,” he says. “Then ask, ‘Will the individuals you choose offer favorable, or at least neutral, commentary regarding your job performance with their organization?’” If the answer to both is yes, you’ve found an ideal reference.
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Shane suggests you adhere to the following steps once you select your references, to ensure that the rest of the process goes smoothly:
Contact the reference.
Send a note, make a call or visit in person to let them know that you’re seeking new employment and that you’d like to use them as a reference. “Be sure to share with them your current résumé and let them know of the position you’re applying for, as well as the type of qualities the company is likely seeking. Give them the impression that their reference is critical to your obtaining the job,” Shane adds.
“One mistake I’ve seek job seekers make is that they don’t provide the referrer with ample notice about the potential of being contacted,” Coleman says. Give them a heads-up and time to prepare.
Verify your personal information.
Refresh your reference’s memory regarding the position you held while working with them and check with human resources to confirm that all information in your personnel file is accurate, Shane suggests. This will avoid any potential confusion down the road.
Keep them in the loop.
Let your references know each and every time you give out their contact information, Shane says. Also keep your positive references informed of your career and educational progress, he adds. “They will be more inclined to see you in a stronger light as you progress.”
Know beforehand what they are going to say.
Unfortunately, many job seekers skip this crucial step. “Some fail to ask their references what they are going to say,” Shane says. “You have to know that they will offer a favorable commentary.”
How do you do this?
Have a discussion.
“Review your past responsibilities, and remind the reference of tangible successes you achieved with them and the company,” Shane recommends. “Review with each reference what they will say in response to questions regarding your strengths and weaknesses.”
Try to learn as much as possible about what your references are going to say about you — but if any of it is less than favorable, don’t take it personally or become defensive. “If the reference feels you are receptive to their comments, good or bad, it may lead them to say you are open-minded.”
Note that spending time communicating with your prospective employer takes valuable time from your references’ workdays, Shane says. “If you plan to use these positive references over the years, you need to give something back.” For instance, each time your reference supports you with a new prospective employer, send them a personal thank-you letter or at the very least an e-mail. Better still, send a thank-you note with a gift card for Starbucks, or offer to take them to lunch, he suggests.
Follow-up and keep in touch.
If you win the new position, call or e-mail the reference, and thank them again for their support. Provide them with your new contact information, and make an effort to maintain communication.
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© 2012 Forbes.com