How To Handle References

by Russ Westcott

Should references be provided when making your initial contact with a prospective employer? In almost all situations the answer is, no.

Reference names should be avoided in initial telephone calls and interviews because:

  • You don’t know enough about the open position to select the references best suited to respond to a reference checker’s questions.
  • You want to demonstrate respect for the reference’s right to grant permission to use his or her name.
  • You need time to contact the references you wish to use.

Reference names should be provided only after you have contacted persons you wish to name and have:

  • Asked the reference for permission to use his or her name and contact information.
  • Discussed the position you are applying for with the reference.
  • Asked the reference for his or her opinion as to your qualifications for such a position.
  • Cleared the air regarding any bad feelings or issues that existed at the time of your departure from a previous place of employment.
  • Discussed how the reference will address any disciplinary actions that led up to or resulted in your termination from a previous place of employment.
  • Coached the reference on how you would expect him or her to respond to the reference checker’s questions. (For example, he or she should never volunteer information unless specifically asked for it.)

Want ads frequently include requests that references be sent. A suggested type of response both to an oral request for references and to an advertisement is:

I will be contacting my references to obtain their permission to give their names to you. I will do this after we have had an opportunity to further explore my potential fit to your requirements.

Who To Use

Carefully select your references to fit the industry, company and position for which you are applying. A so-called character reference may be all right if the prospective employer can clearly see the relevance to the position available.

Be careful not to overuse a reference unless you have his or her permission. A reference check by a prospective employer is an intrusion on the reference’s time—and patience. Overuse can result in a less than enthusiastic response—a possible negative for you.

While the majority of job coaches will follow the suggestions I’m giving you, there is one exception I’ve recently noticed. Older people, perhaps after retiring from one organization and wishing to continue to work, may need to furnish a few references up front to help sell the contribution they can make to new job situations. Older people have to overcome the hidden age bias by addressing the value of their mature attitudes, high levels of experience and stability.

People terminated for actual or suspected rule infractions need to take time to prepare a succinct and truthful statement of why they were terminated. This statement should focus on the lesson learned and that a former employer is willing to vouch for their knowledge, skill or job performance.

This “termination statement” should be carefully rehearsed and tested on people who can provide constructive feedback. Reciting this statement should be part of the discussion and coaching process with people asked to serve as references. It’s a tough call, but it’s better to lay your cards out on the table up-front than to have the termination issue surface later during employment negotiations or, worse, after being employed.

Most assuredly, you will at some point be asked, “Why did you leave the XYZ company?” When it comes to filling out that legal document called an employment application, you can’t avoid the truth—unless you are foolish enough to stake your future employment on a lie.

Reference Checkers

Reference checking is one of the selection and hiring steps frequently done poorly and sometimes not at all. The inexperienced reference checker calls the personnel department of your previous employer and, at best, will only get confirmation you worked there and perhaps that the salary you gave is within the range of the position you held.

A more experienced reference checker may not even contact the references you provided but attempt to contact people such as your fellow workers, internal customers and suppliers. The problem becomes you don’t know who will be contacted, so you must do your best to be prepared.

If you feel comfortable about this suggestion, you could ask a friend to assume a role as a reference checker and call to hear what your reference has to say about you. Be sure your friend doesn’t use the name of a real organization or employ any unethical approaches.

You can and should periodically contact your references to ask what contacts they have received and reaffirm their willingness to continue as your reference. Good references are valuable assets, so treat them with care.

Avoid using as a reference a person who:

  • Feels the urge to editorialize, exaggerate or expand beyond the content of a reference checker’s questions.
  • Feels a need to counsel the reference checker on the pros and cons of hiring you.
  • Has an antagonizing personality or is otherwise perceived as hostile or unfriendly.
  • May have had contact with the company to which you are applying (and you don’t know whether it was a positive or negative experience).
  • May lack the competence to respond to the type of questions he or she may be asked.
  • May interrogate the reference checker.
  • May feel a need to contact the reference checker’s organization after the initial contact.
  • May convey the impression (or fact) that he or she is a close, personal friend—a point that may negatively influence the reference checker or discount the reference’s answers.

Whether your references are a help to your future employment—or a hindrance—depends on how carefully you select and use your references and how you manage your relationships with them. Beware and be wise.

RUSSELL T. WESTCOTT is president of the Offerjost-Westcott Group (OWG), a division of R.T. Westcott & Associates, Old Saybrook, CT. OWG specializes in providing worklife planning, guidance and coaching. He co-edited The Certified Quality Manager Handbook, second edition, the Certified Quality Manager Section Refresher Training Course, The Quality Improvement Handbook and Stepping Up to ISO 9004:2000. Westcott is an ASQ Fellow, certified quality auditor and certified quality manager. He serves on the Thames Valley Section’s executive board as newsletter editor and job leads chair.

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