The Dos and Donts of Giving References for a Job

This advice is offered to you in affiliation with Direct Line Group. Visit Direct Line Group’s Careers website for more interview tips, as well as all current insurance job vacancies across the UK.

Imagine you have been through three rounds of interviews, your HR contact has said you are clearly more experienced than their other candidate, and all that remains is a reference check. Your hopes are high, since you know that your former colleagues will vouch for you.

ensure you get a job offer when you give references

Ensure you get a job offer just as an archer takes care to aim for their target.

My girlfriend was in such a position, but then things went awry. The reference check was not perfunctory. It delivered a few twists, including a question: “On a sliding scale of 1 to 7, how would you rate this candidate in terms of executing the details of a plan?” One of her references responded with a “4,” which is respectable but not awesome.

In fact, it raised more questions than it settled.

And the job offer went to the other candidate.

The Takeaway: Consider carefully whom you choose to provide as your references, and make absolutely sure that you know what they will craft in response to questions about your strengths, your weaknesses, and your modus operandi.

Here are a few common FAQs about providing references, so this final step in the hiring process becomes an easy one (not your Achilles heel).

Is getting a more senior person to give me a reference better than getting someone who’s worked with me daily?

A very savvy recruiter says that the ideal reference is from a person who managed you, i.e., a former boss who can speak to your work habits, your work ethic, your work product, your demeanor while on the job, etc.

You can also broaden the net, especially if you’re in a situation where you do not want a specific employer to be aware of your search, or you’re unable to locate former supervisors.  In cases such as these, thinking outside of your everyday sphere of operation, you can use trade references, vendors you work with regularly, or possibly a sales person you interface with frequently. Identify someone who’s not a peer, but has had occasion to work with you or to ask you to do something on a fairly regular basis.

The recruiter added, “I’ve never had a request for a peer reference. It’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, but in my personal experience, it hasn’t.”

If I worked with someone more than 3 (5 … 10) years back, is it too long ago to use that person as a reference?

It isn’t always true that a reference from a time long ago is stale, but you should make extra effort to “coach” them and “review” what your accomplishments were. This is especially true if you have not been in touch for awhile. Remind them concretely how you deployed a diverse set of skills to transform the work at hand, or whatever hat trick you wish to highlight. Put it in writing, so it is easy to play back.

After all, people are human; colleagues from long ago may have frayed memories of you.

One tip for avoiding this: As you go about your daily work, take time out at least once a year to collect written testimonies from others who can potentially illuminate your talents in a strategic way down the road.

When you complete a complex project with a clear beginning, middle, and end, that is a particularly auspicious time to ask key contacts to put in writing what skills and know-how they observed.

I’ve been working part-time and now want to re-launch my career in a bigger way. Who shall I use as a reference, since I’ve been outside a typical workplace?

There are quite a few variations on this question, including “I’ve been volunteering” … “I am changing fields.”

In all these cases, get creative and use someone who can speak to the specific skill sets transferable to the position you seek. For example, if presenting and persuading is an important part of the position you aspire to, think of cases where you analyzed a problem, presented the merits of alternatives, and lobbied for a particular path.

This kind of approach – asking yourself what you have done similar to what you will be doing, and in what ways it is similar – will reinforce in your own mind your potential to master the job. Then, speak with the person who saw how you gathered input and took specific steps to build support. Paint the picture you would like them to regurgitate – oops, I mean repeat – if the occasion arose. Then, politely ask if they would serve as a reference.

I don’t have work experience. Whom should I give as a reference?

If you’re looking for your first job, or even an entry-level position in a field where you have no experience, finding a reference can be baffling.

Look to teachers or lecturers you’ve studied under who perhaps work in relevant fields, or, if you’ve had part-time jobs, look to your boss or managers there. Unless you operated by stealth or made no impression at all, they should be able to tell future employers something about your work ethic, personality, and interests.

Give them “hints” in the form of the character traits that you would highlight, i.e., your incredible initiative, or your leadership talents that brought together a group of know-it-all’s to gel as a team.

Mojo40 in association with the Direct Line Group would like to take the agony out of your job search. If you can work in the UK, DLG can be a valuable partner in finding your next career move. Contact them to search and apply for a range of roles from customer service and sales, to marketing, HR and everything in between.

Karen Vasconi, who is a recruiter based in New York and is part of the author’s personal network, was an info source for this piece.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons 2.0, Jane Starz.

MuCash lets you make donations quicky in increments as small as a single penny. By leaving a small donation every time you find something of value on Mojo40, you can help me (Diane) keep creating content like this for you to enjoy.
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  • Ari

    Great advice

  • Sharon O’Day

    Very valuable advice, Diane, even though I am no longer in the position of asking for referrals, but rather providing them. It’s useful there as well …

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Ah yes, the referral network is the reverse…. and the best path to building one’s business!

  • SpeakingFromExperience

    In today’s highly competitive market, the last thing you want is a trusted reference to blow it for you in the last step of the process. The method of ranking a candidate is becoming more common, and even one point below the highest or second highest score could be the distinguishing factor that enables them to select another candidate and kicks you out of the running.

    So, when asking a past boss, who seems to be the most important key in the recommendation process, to serve as a reference, in addition to preparing them thoroughly about the position with a copy of the job description, be certain to ask what they would say were the 1-2 areas of concern or improvement that would be helpful for you to address. Then ask them to provide examples of when they experienced or observed this behavior or less than optimal results. Make sure the issues are “real” and not just a “throw away” to say something.

    This might be a difficult discussion, but it is extremely important!! Remember you don’t have to use this individual if you think that in any way they could jeopardize your chance of getting the job.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      You are so on-target there! I hope that the blog readers are also reading the comments…. if I needed a part 2, I could ask you to chime in! Thank you for sharing your expertise.

  • Cynthia

    extremely helpful and succinct set of tips about prepping and providing
    references. This information will definitely come in handy for me in
    the coming week. Thanks very much!

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Hey Cynthia, Good luck… keep your confidence!

  • Lauren

    Very well said, Diane! It IS important to know what kind of references he/she is going to give when you ask, and you might want to give him/her a description of what position you are applying for and remind him/her of the skill sets you have that well suit the position.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      Agreed. Nowadays, when people can go in any number of directions for their next position, it is key to know where they are pointed!

  • conflux

    Great and appropriate topic – one that those of us constantly seeking the next gig have to deal with often. Just like your choice of topic, in my opinion, the choice of reference needs to be appropriate to the position you are going for – especially if you have had varied positions/jobs over time.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      You sound like you speak from experience. In fact, I am one of those who have jumped around, and sometimes I opt for a reference with whom I worked only for a short time, but they placed their entire trust in me.

  • Bruce

    All good points Diane. In previous experiences I’ve offered potential references written bullets about myself, which not only helps busy people do you a favor (the bullets serve as a cheat sheet), but also helps you gauge their feelings about being asked to be a reference.

    • Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

      A gem of an idea. And these days, anyone who is a doer would raise their hand and self-classify as “busy”! So this is a courteous way to “save their time.”

  • Judy Siegel

    In these busy times, finding time to give a thoughtful reference may not always be possible. On the flip side, it’s hard to find the time for the applicant to explain to the reference source why they were chosen for support, suggest what can be said in your favor, and explain why this position is a good fit. I agree with the article, and comments – interviewing, encouraging and coaching the reference source is wise, but tricky. Not doing so can be fatal. ”

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