Choosing references might seem to be one of the most straightforward parts of the job-application process. Just list a couple of your recent supervisors – along with someone who can testify to your personal character – and you’re all set, right? Maybe, if you’ve had a wildly successful career thus far; but for most of us, references need to be handled with more care. A poorly-worded recommendation, or one from the wrong source, may actually turn out to be a liability – while a reference who’s been properly prepped can give you a sharp edge on your competition. While you may be aware of the common CV mistakes to avoid, you may not know about the errors people make in their lists of references. Here are three ways you can make sure your references serve as relevant and credible advocates to your prospective employer.
Keep a distance
One of the most common job-application mistakes is listing references who look as if they’re too close to you to provide an objective opinion on your abilities. There isn’t necessarily any harm in listing a reference who knows you outside of a work environment, but providing close friends or family members as references can cast a shadow of unprofessionalism. “One time,” recalls Susan Heathfield, management consultant and guide to the human resources section of About.com, “a candidate gave me his list of references, and when I called the first individual on his list and asked her what her relationship to the candidate was, she said, ‘I’m his wife.’ Turns out she’d advised him to list references who liked him and would say nice things about him.” Most of us know better than to list a reference with such an obvious stake in our own success, but this story conveys an important point about the job application process: If a reference supports you primarily on the basis of a personal relationship, that person’s commendations of your expertise and work ethic won’t carry much weight. What’s more, listing a reference who’s been close to you throughout your life may invite additional risk: “That person may – intentionally or unintentionally – reveal things about you that you wouldn’t want your prospective employer to know,” says Paul Barada, chairman of the board of Barada Associates. Employers may not mind an occasional character reference who’s known you since you were a child, and such recommendations could potentially work in your favor – “but,” Heathfield cautions; “no employer is going to hire you based on a character reference alone.”
The obvious candidates for career-based references may not be the ones who’ll provide the strongest recommendations on your behalf. Your immediate supervisor at your current job probably works with you on a daily basis, which means that he or she is likely to be as sharply attuned to your mistakes as to your successes – not to mention that your current employer has a vested interest in keeping you on board. So where can you turn for relevant references? One potential goldmine is your previous positions: Supervisors from earlier jobs may be inclined to remember your work in a favorable light. Along the same lines, previous co-workers – especially those who served with you on boards or project teams – can provide detailed rundowns of your talents, as can fellow members in professional associations. Another option is to reach upward and solicit a recommendation from high-ranking officials in your current company, such as the president, VP and so on. Even if you haven’t worked closely with these individuals, they may be able to offer large-scale perspectives on your achievements, while also bringing some serious credibility to the table. Ideally, Barada says, you should aim to list a mixture of superiors, peers and subordinates. “A subordinate may have a lot of polite things to say about you,” he explains, “but a peer or a superior can provide a more balanced perspective.”
Asking a reference to praise specific skills in your stockpile might seem like an exercise in egotism, but it’s actually a crucial step in the job-seeking process – especially if you’re looking to move up the career ladder. “Always prepare your references by talking to them and asking permission to list them,” Heathfield says. For one thing, this is just polite; it gives you the chance to alert your references that they may be asked to offer recommendations on your behalf. Chatting with potential references can also save time and energy in the long run: Some employers’ corporate policies prohibit employees from serving as references, aside from providing objective facts about your position and dates of employment with the company – so it’s worth your while to ask about policies like these before reserving a reference spot for a supportive co-worker. Perhaps even more importantly, though, preparing your references gives you a chance to coach them a little, and guide them toward the kinds of information on which your prospective employer is likely to look most favorably. If you’ve got a strong working relationship with a reference, you’ll be doing yourself a favor – and making the process easier on your reference – by specifying precisely which of your skills and attributes you’re hoping to emphasize to potential employers. Match each reference with his or her specific area of expertise, and these recommendations can serve as some of the most powerful tools in your job-application arsenal. “It’s not at all impolite to ask this,” Heathfield says; “in fact, it’s a very common practice, and it’s also considered good job-searching behavior.”
Competition for high-ranking positions is fierce in any industry – so if you’re gunning for a higher salary or a corner office, you’ll need to bring all your talents to bear on the challenge. No single success can take the place of presenting a powerful overall image, from your CV to your social connections. Still, even overnight successes can’t succeed entirely on their own – and a list of well-chosen, well-prepared references will help tip the odds in your favor.
Posted by Ben Thomas who writes feature articles in which he offers job hunting advice for The Riley Guide. For more information on colleges and careers, check out www.rileyguide.com.
NOTE: This post was written by a guest blogger and the content for the post approved by Oregon State University Career Services. We are not responsible for the content of the websites linked in the post.