We give little attention to references in our job searches, just finding a few people who will be sympathetic and listing them on our résumés or supplying their co-ordinates when asked by a prospective employer.
That's a big mistake, according to Peter Studner, a Los Angeles-based expert in job hunting, who has helped 27,000 people start new careers through his work as an outplacement consultant and countless more through his book Super Job Search, which recently hit its fourth edition.
He preaches the importance of selling your accomplishments on your résumé and in subsequent interviews – not the posts you have held, but the specific accomplishments that can be traced to your work. And the best way to affirm that those accomplishments are real is for the potential employer to hear it in the words of your references. "That closes the loop," he said in an interview.
But that won't happen if you just jot down a few names on a reference sheet, don't check that they can speak about your accomplishments, and don't make sure they know what it is you want them to attest to. "A single lukewarm reference can kill your candidacy," he stresses in the book.
But you can prevent that, using his techniques. After listing your accomplishments, consider who can attest to each one. It might be former colleagues – peers, a boss, subordinates – or even outsiders, like customers or a corporate director. Make sure they are good communicators who can discuss you and your work in an objective-sounding manner without exaggerating or offering long-winded tributes that might only provoke more questions in the interviewer's mind.
Ask their permission. But more than that, ensure they understand how you are selling yourself. Send them a copy of your résumé, highlighting in bold the specific accomplishments that they would be familiar with.
As well, set up a time to meet. Your references will likely be busy people, and so you may be reluctant to ask for their time, which he says is the biggest mistake his clients make. After all, it's a compliment to be asked to give a reference. These are also people who like you and perhaps have not had much contact with you recently, so they might be delighted to have a sandwich, catch up on what you have been doing, review old times – and learn how they can be of help to you.
Be sure they are on board. Ask directly: "Can you support me on this accomplishment?"
At the same time, think about those people you would rather not be asked about your work. Usually we assume that if somebody isn't on our reference list, they won't be approached. But Mr. Studner says life isn't that neat. Reference checkers will often ask who else would be familiar with your time at the company, and your reference might inadvertently suggest someone with whom your relationship had become poisoned.
He recommends approaching such individuals, acknowledging you had differences of opinion, but asking whether they would still be willing to act as a reference. "Nine out of 10 times, that person will say yes," he said, and this approach will make them feel more positive toward you.
The next step is not to list them as a reference. They still are not your best bet. But at least you have neutralized their anger, they have an idea of what you feel you accomplished, and if called, may not be a spoiler.
When you meet your references, go through the following 13 questions they might be asked, to help them think through their answers:
"How do you know the candidate?"
"What were the circumstances of his leaving the company?"
"Was she on any performance improvement plan? How did she do?" This may be asked, Mr. Studner notes, if there are hints of any problems with your application.
"What are his strong points?"
"In what areas does she need improvement?"
"Would you hire him again?"
"What were her greatest achievements at the company?"
"Who else supervised him?"
"Did the candidate live up to your expectations?"
"How were her leadership skills?"
"Was he appreciated by his colleagues?"
"Was she reliable?"
"Is there anything else you can add about the candidate?"
In some cases, your references will be unsure how to answer, so you can coach them, reminding them of your successes and filling in gaps, such as why you left the organization.
Then keep in touch, making sure that when you supply references to a company, those individuals are prepared for a call. And after you take a new job, make sure they are among the first to know – and are properly thanked. "Thank you goes a long way in the job search," he said.
Thinking through the process of lining up references, rather than treating it as an afterthought, can be an important element in your job search.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter