You scored an interview for a job you really want and you nailed it. But before you start mentally arranging your knickknacks in your new cubicle, there's one more step: the reference check.
While some employers, fearing lawsuits from former employees related to less-than-positive reference letters, have become hesitant to reveal much beyond job title and period of employment, hiring companies are still very much interested in finding out all they can about potential hires. A 2010 poll by the U.S.-based Society for Human Resource Management showed 76 per cent of organizations still conduct background checks for all candidates. So identifying and obtaining the co-operation of people who are willing and able to say nice things about your work is something to think about sooner than later.
Mary Jo Ducharme, associate professor and graduate program director at York University's school of human resource management, advises approaching those who have complimented your work openly, and who are familiar with your job.
"A lot of job applicants go for a senior person mistakenly, because they believe the title will mean a more prestigious reference, but the letter ends up being empty," Prof. Ducharme said. "It's better to get a rave review from someone who works with you closely."
After you've chosen your references, you'll need to help them help you by providing them with information they may need about you and the job for which you have applied.
Philip Wilson, a 35-year human resources veteran who has worked for large companies including Nortel Networks Corp. and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and now consults for Toronto-based leadership and career-transition firm Felix Global Corp., suggests providing your references with a one-page memo of bullet points summarizing your accomplishments and talents. You should also include a copy of the job description and the required skills.
Prof. Ducharme agrees, adding that you should make sure your notes are short and sweet. "Don't bombard them with information," she advises. "Put a lot of time into the package you provide, because they are busy people who have 20 minutes to do this. Include a bare-bones outline of the job requirements, and a clear outline of who you are and how you fit." Also, don't be afraid to remind references about past praise.
Bill Palamar, an interview coach and consultant who has spent 25 years in the human resources field, suggests that you could even schedule a phone call to brief references about the job. "Jot down key points, and then get back to your [reference] and say 'Here are points that seemed important to that employer' so they are prepared to talk to them."
Those who regularly read reference letters say the best ones are strong on details. Besides explaining how the candidate's skills fit the job description, the most effective reference letters also touch upon the values of the applicant and "how they made a difference in the business or on a team," Mr. Wilson said.
Of course, these days many references are provided over the phone. "One reason that phone interviews [with references] are typical is that interviewers often know what they are looking for," Mr. Wilson said. "If a person's a really good interviewer, they will ask the right questions." While oral interviews may be harder to predict, providing an information package will still help prepare your references.
Mr. Palamar, who has hired hundreds of people over the years predominantly in the non-profit and service industries, said he often starts a reference check by confirming basics such as the period of employment and past responsibilities, then moves into asking about responsibilities. "Typically I would say 'In the role they would assume with us, there are three key responsibilities, and I was wondering if you could comment on how this person handled similar responsibilities in your organization.'"
In today's socially connected world, another factor has pushed references to the forefront: LinkedIn. Lauren Friese, the founder of TalentEgg.ca, a job site that caters to students and recent graduates, said that cultivating good LinkedIn references can be particularly helpful for younger job seekers looking to stand out.
"If you are student or recent grad and you have a profile that says you went to X average school and Y average program and you worked at the Gap part-time, that doesn't say much to an employer. But if you take the time to add commentary and colour by getting references who are credible, then you've just stood out from the pack."
Ms. Friese said that younger job seekers sometimes fail to supply references on their LinkedIn profiles simply because they don't have the confidence to ask former employers for their help.
Yet even for experienced workers, references remain an afterthought. "Too often people leave it too late, which I find staggering because it's so difficult to even get to the interview stage," Mr. Palamar said. "The last thing you want to do is drop the ball by providing a reference who isn't ready to speak."