I am an intermediate-level communications professional with a solid track record who is considering a move to a new organization. However, I absolutely hate asking people to provide references. It is intrusive to the person being asked for a referral and makes the person doing the asking feel like a beggar.
Why are references even required in this day and age when information about a candidate's job history and accomplishments can be found online, interviewers conduct multiple interviews, and new hires are almost always on probation for a few months, anyway? Isn't it time for companies to base their selection on a person's CV and in-person interviews rather than on third-party opinions – let's face it, regardless of the theoretical value, references are subjective and based on liking a person rather than objective assessment.
Is there any way I can get around providing references without appearing evasive so I don't have to bother friends and former employers?
Make no mistake: References matter. You can't bypass references without compromising your career prospects.
Good references won't consider it a bother to vouch for you if they indeed know you as a person they respect for both the quality of your work as well as your nature.
Third-party endorsements (a.k.a. references) help to validate a candidate's credibility and potential fit. It's considered essential to one's career navigation. First, do great work (and get along with others on the way); second, tell others (through your résumé, LinkedIn and interviews); and third, make sure there are people who can back up what you say.
There's a lot of focus on personal brands these days. This isn't just what you say about yourself – anyone can make up a brand. Personal branding needs to be authentic; what you say about yourself must be well aligned with how others think of you. Those characteristics may extend well beyond the chronology and accomplishment list of your résumé. Your brand also encompasses values, strengths, personal approach and more.
Résumés, interviews and references have distinct purposes. Résumés give a snapshot of who you are professionally and what you've accomplished; interviews give the employer a chance to dig deeper and for you to present yourself more fully; and references help employers "kick the tires" a little to ensure your narrative is credible and that you are a meaningful prospect for consideration.
Any suggestion that the probation period is sufficient insurance to guard against poor hires is misguided. Most employers want to get the hiring decision right from the get-go. It's extremely costly to try out different people and see them go. Doing due diligence up front can reduce an employer's chance of hiring a poor fit. Talking to references is part of that due diligence.
What was she like to work with? How did she handle conflict? To what extent was she perceived to be a team player? Tell me about her areas of challenge? Her strengths? How did she contribute to the organization's goals? These are just some of the questions that might elicit useful information not readily available from the prospect.
As for the issue of subjectivity – this is also important and shouldn't be dismissed. People prefer to hire people that they like and have a track record of being respected and liked by others. Employers will try to recruit people they feel will "play well" (work well) with others in the organization, represent the organization well and be positive contributors to the organization's mission and culture. While you can talk up these attributes in yourself, only others can vouch for this.
If you feel that asking for a reference would be like begging, then I would strongly encourage you to take a hard look at why that is and to reflect on your working relationships, your personal style, and the reputation you are building for yourself, either inadvertently or otherwise.
I'm wondering whether you might be putting too much emphasis on your functional skills and career chronology, and not enough on the relationships and the personal marketing side of things.
Ask yourself these questions:
Am I cultivating positive relationships in my work – or only focusing on the projects?
Am I aware what strengths others notice in me? Do these agree with my own perception?
Do the right people have an understanding of my work and contribution? What's my responsibility in ensuring they know enough of what they need to know to be a meaningful reference (either now or later in my career)?
Am I aware what gaps and challenges others would cite? Does this overlap with my own perception?
Do I have people in my corner who will be happy to see me succeed in my next stage of my career? If not, what is my responsibility to ensure they will?
Your answers to these and other questions will help you discern where your real work is cut out for you.
Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is a work-life and leadership coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto. She is the author of Ease, a book offering strategies to cope in times of "crazy busy."
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