Gord MacKay is a career adviser and a certified career development facilitator with 20-plus years of experience in manufacturing.
Virtually every employer requires professional references from candidates before confirming an offer of employment. They may ask for specific types (managers, co-workers, subordinates, etc.) or they may leave it up to you to choose them. Even if you were referred by a current employee, company policy may require reference checks.
As would seem obvious, if you're going to provide the names of people with whom a prospective employer may discuss your previous work performance, you want to ensure that those people are going to be positive about you. If not, you may find that your job search hasn't ended after all.
Don't confuse a professional reference with a simple verification of your work history. Anyone can contact the HR departments of your previous employers to verify that you worked there and for how long, what position or positions you held, your reason for leaving, and to ask if you would be considered for re-employment.
None of those is a reference. They're just facts. A reference is the personal opinion of someone who can provide comments on you and your abilities from their own perspective and experience in working with you.
During my time as an employer, I never once checked a reference when hiring someone. I trusted my gut feelings about people and was seldom disappointed with the outcome. I felt that it would largely be a waste of time to speak to people who had been hand-picked by the candidates. After all, who would be crazy enough to supply the names of people who would trash them?
However, I was in the minority.
I was always happy to provide references for good employees, though, if they were moving on. In one case, a long-time employee (I'll call him Bill) was relocating some distance away and inquired if I would be willing to provide him with a letter of reference. I was only too happy to do it, because, if the truth be told, I was happy that he was leaving.
Bill was a good guy: reliable, honest, hard-working and happy to do anything you asked, but he had one huge fault: he could not think for himself. Whenever done with one task, he would essentially become a statue until someone gave him something new to do. He was incapable of seeing something that needed to be done and taking the initiative to do it.
Several months after he left, I received a call from a company wanting to verify his employment and my letter of recommendation. The man on the phone introduced himself and asked if I had written the letter that Bill had provided to him. Since this was long before the days of Skype, I couldn't see the letter, so I asked him to read it to me. By the time he had finished the second sentence I said that I had written it. He said that I made it sound like Bill was a really good guy to have on staff. I replied that he was.
Then he asked me a very interesting question, "What are you not saying about him?"
I replied that I'd be happy to tell him, if he wouldn't mind first telling me for what type of job he was being considered. It turned out that it was a fairly repetitive job, working on a production line, with little or no variation in the duties and requiring only normal focus and effort. I told him that Bill would be one of the best people they could get for this position. In fact, they'd probably wish they could clone him. I said, "Just don't expect him to think for himself. He'll need to be told or shown what to do in every case."
The man thanked me and hung up. A week or so later I received a note from Bill to thank me for giving him such a good reference and to say that he got the job. Well, I was genuinely happy for him, but, in truth, what I said about him wasn't exactly a glowing overall endorsement. It was a good reference for the specific job for which he was being considered and that was all that really mattered.
References shouldn't be used as a factor in deciding whether or not to offer a job to someone. They should only be used to confirm that the chosen candidate is the right one after the offer is made.
People can perform poorly in one environment and be stellar in another. It doesn't take much to turn great potential into mediocre performance. It's called "bad management," either in terms of the immediate superior or the overall direction of the company, and it thrives to this day.
Bad managers, aside from their detrimental effect on current employees, may also try to sabotage a former employee's attempts to work elsewhere by providing a negative or "just okay" opinion. Why they would bother to do this is beyond me, but I have seen this happen to clients of mine a number of times. Some have been so critical and derogatory that it was hard to believe the person had been employed there for any length of time and hadn't been fired for complete incompetence.
It was totally unprofessional and small-minded of the former employer to do this, and could easily have led to civil litigation. No one has the right to try to prevent a former employee from securing employment elsewhere and it's very possible that someone who had a rough time or didn't meet expectations in one company will excel in another.
When you provide the names of people to whom you reported, with whom you worked, or who reported to you, make sure you get in touch with them to not only get their permission but get an idea if they will be positive in their comments.
I don't agree that you should coach them on what to say, but do let them know what the job is and why you feel you're a good fit for it.
Hopefully they will agree. If not, do not give their names to your prospective employer. Try to think of someone else, even if it may not be exactly the person the prospective employer wants. Better to say that you think your old boss retired/died/was sent to jail than risk the chance that the grudge they had against you for leaving is still festering away and that this is a great opportunity for them to exact their revenge on you.
Think it couldn't happen? Don't bet a good job on it.
Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.