But They Said They’d Give Me a Good Reference

Posted on September 18, 2010


By Melanie Szlucha

“Will you give me a good reference?” It’s what everyone asks an employer before they leave, and I’m sure that 99% of the time the employer says, “Sure, no problem.”

What else are they going to say?

But the question is, what does a good reference mean?

Recently I had a client who is in the final rounds for a very good job. He’s at the reference-checking point, and assumes he’s home free. The people on his reference list all said that they’d give him a good reference, so what’s the problem? He wasn’t a bad employee, he came in on time (or early), did his job, didn’t pick fights with people and knew what he was doing. So he’s all set, right?

Maybe not.

I’ve done plenty of reference checks in my time, and they’re not as straightforward as you’d think.

First, if you have someone from HR on your reference sheet, chances are they’ll only verify the dates of your employment (which had better match with what’s on your resume, or you’re out of the game-no questions asked), your title, and if you’re eligible to be rehired. That’s all they’re going to divulge. They’re HR-you’re lucky you got them on the phone in the first place.

Then there are the personal references from former colleagues and clients. And they typically go a little more like a conversation.

The potential employer will call them up and ask some basic questions about the type of position you held there and your responsibilities. They’ll then either describe the job they’re looking to hire you for, or they’ll start asking specific questions related to the job. So in some of my former positions, I’d specifically ask about people’s customer service experience-how well did they interact with others, problem solving abilities. I’d say things like “in this job, we have a lot of large accounts, and this person is frequently dealing with someone lower on the totem pole at the agency. They’ve got to understand data-the nuances of accurately slicing and dicing it-and explain that to people who are not good with numbers. Does this sound like the kind of thing you’d have confidence in them doing?”

And this is where things can get tricky. Because while that person said they’d give you a good reference, and I’m sure earlier in the call they did, now the hiring manager is asking about a specific aspect of the position that you may or may not have done frequently, or perhaps wasn’t your greatest strength (but overall you were a great performer).

And in some weird way, we’re speaking hiring manger to hiring manager, and there’s a code of ethics involved. If I’ve done my job well as a reference-checker, I’ve charmed the person on the other end of the phone to feel comfortable with me. It’s in my best interest; I need to hire a great employee. I need the hiring manager to be honest and objective.

So what can you do to improve this situation? You can’t influence what the hiring manager asks, but you can always “prep” your references for the call. You should NEVER use someone as a reference and then not call or email them to tell them to expect a call from a company. NEVER! It’s in your best interest to reach out to them in some form and let them know who is calling, the company they’re from, and the type of position it is. You should also say, “it’s a lot like what I did when I worked there-remember the XYZ client?” to jog their memory a bit about what to talk about. Tee it up for yourself. You know what the job is about, you know what your work experience is like. Don’t leave it up to chance. We’ve already established that hiring managers feel most comfortable hiring like employees for like positions-so again, carry that connection through. It’s still true that the hiring manager could throw your references a curve ball, but at least they can leverage more of the similarities—and will do a better job sticking up for you if you’ve taken the time to do them a favor by preparing them a bit first.

And what should you do if you’re worried about an aspect of the position? Come clean to your reference (chances are they’re a type of professional friend anyway, so be honest). Say, “I love this job, and the hiring manager’s great, but I’m worried that he’s (or she) going to think I don’t have enough experience in A. What I plan to do to counteract that when I get there is…” Show that you acknowledge that you’re a little worried about it, but that otherwise it’s a great fit. And most importantly show that you have an action plan to get it done. If a reference outlined that scenario for me-including the part where the employee called and “confessed” a concern and how they were going to tackle it, I would no longer be worried. We were on the same page, and I’d be willing to help them once they started working for me.

If you don’t acknowledge your concern-and you know it’s a big aspect of the job-then your reference doesn’t have good material to counteract what is probably a big concern. It’s best to proactively arm them as best you can.