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Friday, June 29, 2007


For Your Reference

A major aspect of any job search process is the preparation of references. A well-intentioned but poorly prepared set of references can do more harm than good.

What is the purpose of reference checking?
With the increasing incidence of candidates falsifying their credentials and embellishing experience and achievements, some employers require significant background checks.
Today, some companies have a "no comment" policy. Most do not want to be sued for defamation and therefore will only comment on dates of employment, job titles and salary or refer the caller back to the human resource department. So it is either no comment or only positive things.
What is the point of a reference check if the referees will only give glowing reports, you may ask? It will still provide some measure of comfort to the potential employer to have the referee give a report that is congruent to the stories that the candidate has been telling.
A skilled reference checker will ask questions that will lead the referee to share examples and give specifics.
Typical reference check questions include:

  • What was his role/position when you worked together?
  • How long did he work in that position?
  • Why is he leaving (or has left) the organisation?
  • What responsibilities did he have?
  • Describe his key competencies and strengths.
  • Describe his developmental needs.
  • How did he perform in his role? How would you describe his performance?
  • Provide an example of his achievement.
  • Would you employ (want to work with) him again?
Who can be referees?
Recruiters will ask that your referees be made up of superiors (direct manager, team leader, project supervisor), peers or colleagues, clients, vendors, business partners and subordinates - generally, people who have worked with you in a professional capacity.

How do I prepare my referees?
Identify key areas you want to be stated in support of your career or the role you are being considered for.
The reference checker might ask for examples, so make sure the referee can support their statements with some evidence:
  1. Arrange for a meeting or phone conversation with your referee. Review questions that he may be asked.
  2. Tell your referee about the kind of job you are seeking. Ask if he is comfortable recommending you for such a position. Give him a copy of your resume, clarify your accomplishments, and answer questions he may have.
  3. Suggest to you referee that you would appreciate strong recommendations in the key areas and traits mentioned above.
  4. Ask the referee what he thinks about your weaknesses or developmental areas, for example: "May I ask you what you think my developmental needs are, so that you and I are consistent?"
  5. With former bosses, clarify reasons for leaving. Tell them what you are saying and ask if they are comfortable saying that as well. You are not asking your referee to lie. You merely need a congruent story, as reasons for leaving may sometimes be vague.
  6. Write a summary so your referee can refer to it. The summary will consist of key points raised during your conversation and the traits and strengths to be emphasised - your career focus, summary of strengths, developmental needs and reasons for leaving.
  7. Tell your referee who will be getting in touch with him so he is not surprised when the call comes. Even better, schedule the call yourself if possible.
  8. Gain your referee's commitment to call you if anyone contacts him.
  9. Keep your
What if my referee does not think highly of me?
In the event your referee has a poor opinion of your developmental needs or weaknesses, for example, do not argue with him.
Listen carefully. Offer more favourable wording. It is not the end of the world if your referee gives one or two not-so-glowing comments - it shows you are human, and we all have areas of improvement. It is more important to be consistent.

Should referees be listed on resumes?
I will say "no". And do not waste space in your resume stating the obvious "References will be provided upon request". It is understood.
The reason: You want to control the formal reference checking process and prevent overzealous recruiters from calling your referees too early and too often. Some recruiters may just do so before you are considered a finalist, just to ease their workload.
If overused in situations where you are not a finalist for a job, you run the risk of your referees becoming less that enthusiastic, resulting in a weaker response when you really need them.

Can reference letters or testimonials replace references?
In reality, companies rarely look at reference letters. It may raise more alarms in some cases where the candidate refuses to provide referees.
You may use a testimonial to serve as a preliminary reference until you are a serious candidate. Never let testimonial take the place of a recruiter talking to your referee personally. Your referee will be contacted anyway.
Most potential employers will not ask for a letter of reference, so do not push your referee for a letter.

What if my former superior does not make a "good" referee?
Let's say you did not get along with your previous supervisor, and your future employer will be looking to speak to your former boss as a referee.
Offer the information before it is requested. Raise the issue yourself, so you can tell it your way.
Offer alternative referees who acted in some way as your supervisor, such as board members, project heads, cross-functional managers, among others.

How do I minimise weak references?
Reference checking can be formal or informal.
Informal or blind references will happen without your knowledge and consent, and may be beyond your control. Therefore you must ensure that your formal references are properly prepared.
Excluding your former boss from your list of referees is a red flag for most recruiters.
While in interview, you may exclude a potentially weak reference from a former boss by offering the following:
"My boss had a heavy travel schedule, and we worked independently of one another. So he did not have much knowledge of my results. You are welcome to call him, but please keep in mind he may not know me as well as the other referees on my list."
Or: "We worked in a matrixed organisation. While Mr A was my location manager and immediate supervisor, the business director came from Mr B, the head of my business unit, with whom I worked more closely. Mr B has more intimate knowledge of my projects and results."
References can make or break a deal. Ask them if they will call you after each reference check for a debrief. And of course, don't forget to say "thank you" or send a note of appreciation.

The Straits Times, CATS Recruit - Wed, June 20, 2007
by Chee Sze Yen,]

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