Leverage the power of references

Careers  Communication
07 November, 2022

Reference checks offer value for companies and candidates alike. Don’t dismiss this often-overlooked part of the hiring process.

Most of us spend an inordinate time in interviews. Unfortunately, interviews are very unreliable in assessing candidates. A couple of years back, a friend who leads a prominent venture capital firm, taught me the value of detailed reference checks. He found feedback from the candidate’s peers and past supervisors to be much more useful in making hiring decisions. I have also now been leaning more on references.

Till recently, reference checks weren’t generally at the top of a hiring manager’s priority list – but that’s starting to change. The cost of a hiring mistake can be significant and can take months to unwind. Testimonies from former co-workers can offer much deeper insights than the cursory feedback from most interviews. Applicants, too, can harness the power of references – getting the right champion to back your candidacy could give you the competitive edge you need to land a coveted role.

This week, my message focuses on job references. Let’s explore this topic from three different perspectives – hiring managers, job-seekers, and potential references.

For hiring managers: Making the most of references

Instead of viewing reference checks as a waste of time or just another checkbox item, why not approach them as an opportunity to know your potential hires better?

The right type of conversation can help you develop a fuller picture of your candidate, why could either reinforce confidence or make you rethink your choice. Well-executed conversations can also yield valuable insights about future employees, which would take years to acquire in the normal course of affairs.

Here are 6 recommendations to make the most of reference checks:

1. Clarify the relationship.

Explicitly ask how the reference knows the candidate. Did they work together closely? Are they old friends? Understanding the relationship will allow you to gauge the usefulness of the reference. Watch out for “fame-based references”, as pointed out in a Harvard Business Review piece on this topic:

Some candidates pick people as a reference who are well known in their field but whom they haven’t worked closely with. A fame-based reference isn’t helpful to you as a manager.

2. Get into specifics.

Start by describing the scope of the job, then dive into details. Frame questions around which aspects of the role match the candidate’s capabilities and experience, as well as which aspects might pose a challenge. If the reference is speaking in broad generalisations, steer the conversation back to facts – “What made her presentations so effective?” or “In what ways was he able to add value to the project?”.

3. Avoid negativity.

References will feel a sense of loyalty and want you to like and hire the candidate. Avoid criticisms, as this may cause the reference to either shut down or over-compensate by gushing. Any negative comments might also get back to the candidate.

4. Explore key concerns.

Before the call, identify 1-2 concerns among people who interviewed the candidate. Maybe you are worried they aren’t a solid team player, or that they lack experience in a particular area. To get more information around these aspects, pose open-ended questions such as: “Tell me about his working style within the team” or “Could you describe her responsibilities in digital sales?”.

5. Be patient.

Letting the reference speak on without interruption can yield important information. Resist the temptation to cut in; instead, allow relevant details to emerge in their own time.

6. Clarify discrepancies.

If there is a mismatch between your conversation with the candidate and their reference, seek clarification from both or either parties. Hopefully, the explanation will put your mind at ease. If not, then you may need to dig deeper.

For job-seekers: Getting the right references

Companies generally call your references in the last lap of the hiring race. But remember, you may not be the only one approaching the finish line! Your reference could be the deciding factor between selecting you or someone else for the job. As a candidate, it’s vital to list the right references and ensure that they’re prepared to back your application all the way.

Here are 4 suggestions for getting the best possible references:

1. Find your champions.

A paper published in the Harvard Business Review underscores the value of an enthusiastic reference: 

Whether you pick your former manager who can describe your work in detail; colleagues from other departments who can speak to your ability to work across a global, matrixed organization; or external clients who can attest to your ability to influence without authority, the most important thing to consider when choosing whom to list as a reference is who can be the most enthusiastic about you as a candidate. Enthusiasm matters as much as what they say about you (if not more).

2. Instead of simply listing your last three managers (the default choice!), tailor your references to demonstrate the different types of business relationships you have forged over your career. Include at least one person relevant to your new role. For example, if the job requires you to manage a young team, you could choose a junior team member. If you’re trying to enter a new industry, pick someone who can speak about your key transferable skills.

3. Ask nicely.

Once you have your wish list in place, call each person and ask if they would be comfortable being listed as a reference. A cardinal sin committed by some job-seekers is to give someone as a reference without informing the person, which can backfire badly. If you sense any hesitation at all, thank them politely and withdraw the request. The last thing you want is an unenthusiastic recommendation at the most crucial hiring stage! 

4. Prep your references.

Once the person has agreed to the request, candidates usually leave the rest up to them. There is an underutilised opportunity here. Preparing your reference can boost your chances of getting hired. Give them an idea of the role you’ve applied for and mention the key points you’d like to convey – job-appropriate qualities, outstanding achievements, or initiatives you may have forgotten to mention during your interviews.

For potential references: Responding to requests

Providing a reference for a high-performing, dedicated co-worker is a win-win. Not only do you have the chance to support their career but also shore up good “career karma”. Paying it forward is vital to a long, rewarding professional journey.

Keep the following 3 suggestions in mind while serving as a reference:

1. Do your homework.

Put some thought into what you would like to talk about – the highlights reel, so to speak. If it’s been a while since you worked together, ask the candidate for an updated resume or have them refresh your memory about their biggest achievements.

2. Be positive.

This is not the time to be subtle or neutral! Convey your praise with a high level of enthusiasm. If you’re speaking about a star performer or an excellent boss, you might want to offer the ultimate compliment: “I would hire him back immediately” or “I would definitely be part of her team again, if given the chance”.

3. Provide specific examples.

Avoid generalities. Instead, give specific illustrations of the candidate’s skills and expertise. You could describe key initiatives, offer statistics, and recall anecdotes that speak to their on-the-job successes.

What if you’re asked for a reference by someone you don’t like or respect, or someone you haven’t worked with closely? Saying an outright “no” feels rude, but at the same time, you shouldn’t feel forced to provide a reference. Vouching for someone with sub-par skills or a poor work ethic isn’t fair to anyone and can damage your personal credibility.

Here are 3 acceptable reasons for turning down a reference request:

1. Lack of time.

An article in Harvard Business Review offers the following advice: 

Play the travel card, the closing a deal card, or the family card – concede that you don’t have the ability to serve as a worthy reference or write an adequate letter of recommendation because it’s takes too much effort away from what you are truly focused on in the moment.

2. Lack of knowledge.

References should ideally come from people who are extremely familiar with the candidate’s qualifications, work and character. If this isn’t the case, then your best bet is to be honest with the candidate. Explain that you don’t know them well enough to serve as a strong reference, and encourage them to reach out to people who know them better. Mention that it isn’t in their own best interest to have a wishy-washy reference.

3. Lack of authentic praise.

Sometimes, we receive reference requests from people whom we can’t, in good conscience, give a glowing recommendation. In such a case, saying “yes” isn’t an option: you would either have to falsely praise the person, or end up badmouthing them. One of the above two reasons can serve as a perfectly suitable excuse to turn down the request.

Optionally, if you want to be honest and are willing to have a tough conversation, you could explain that your reference probably wouldn’t live up to the level of praise the person is expecting. This way, they will know your real reason for saying “no” – but will also realise that you have no desire to endanger their job prospects.

Reference checks are often dismissed as a mere formality in the hiring process. In fact, they offer valuable opportunities to all parties involved. Hiring managers can form a more complete picture of their selected candidates. Job-seekers can bolster their chances of snagging coveted roles. And those who serve as references are able to demonstrate kindness and authenticity while supporting the growth of former co-workers. All in all, references certainly deserve more time, attention and care than they are currently given.


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