You may think work references are a thing of the past, but they are more important than ever. They can be the thing that makes or breaks your chance for a promotion, or new job. Yet they are often the last thing we think of.
On average, a person changes jobs every 2-5yrs. There is a good chance that your reference will not be at the same company by the time you need them to make the recommendation they promised you. And if they haven’t moved on, many companies have put policies in place to prevent references being given out.
With all of this going on, how can you make sure you have all of your references in place before you start looking for a job?
Why references are important
Your references are there to vouch that your experience is correct and to speak about you as an unbiased third-party.
References are, to a degree, objective. Whether you get this job or that job is of no consequence to them. This means that they can give a potential employer perspective on how you work, your interactions with colleagues, and explain why they found you a great employee.
For example, imagine a person spending 15 minutes praising their own abilities. Now, imagine someone spending 15 minutes praising a colleague’s professional capabilities. Who comes across as more believable and authentic? The second person.
When someone praises our abilities, independently of us, it sounds less boastful and somehow more honest. They provide a significant amount of real unbiased data.
References do the same thing. That’s what makes them so important.
Requesting a reference before you need it
If you plan to start looking for a new role, you should begin contacting the people you want to use as references straight away. As soon as you start your job search and going on interviews, you want to have your references available already.
Ideally, you want to have 2-3 verbal references, and 3-5 letters of recommendation, that you can use to differentiate yourself from the other candidates applying to the same role.
Start making it a habit to collect written references before moving on – leaving school, moving between divisions in your company, changing towns, or starting a new job. This way you will have a good stock of references to use at a moment’s notice.
Managers and Supervisors may change jobs, retire, or move across the country. This could make it challenging to get hold of them again. Make sure to request a letter of recommendation before they leave. Even if they are no longer in that role, their experiences with you are still relevant to your future career.
Remember to make your request when your reference has the freshest, clearest memory of their work experience with you.
Capitalise on social media references
You already know that hiring managers will be checking your social media profiles. This is also a perfect time to use the recommendation sections on your profiles to capitalise on that attention.
After you make sure your social media profiles are polished and complete, you need to go hunting in your network for LinkedIn recommendations. Although online references are much shorter, they are a spotlight on your skills.
The protocol to request online recommendations is very similar to requesting written references. Stay thoughtful when you make your request and remember that the writer of your reference is doing you a favour.
Don’t forget to thank anyone who provides you with online recommendations. Even though they take less time to complete, your references are will still be taking time out of their day to help you.
Protocol for requesting a reference
1. Don’t phrase your request as a yes or no question
Ensure you leave your request open-ended and friendly, whether you make your request in person or over email. Let them know that you need a reference letter or online recommendation and ask if they would assist you.
Phrase your question so the person feels they can truthfully accept or decline. You don’t want to force someone to accept when they won’t do your skills justice in the reference letter.
2. If they accept, provide any information that will be helpful for them
Provide a copy of your resume. Remind them of your sales figures, KPI’s, achievements and growth over the years. Feel confident to express any skills or qualification you have that are important for your role.
Giving them this information will help your reference know what areas are essential for them to focus on.
3. Help them tailor their response
Not everyone is going to stay in the same position for the rest of their lives. You may start in one career, and change course several times as you build new skills. And that’s ok. Just let your references know.
If you’re applying for a customer service position, but have spent five years in an accounting role, ensure your reference speaks to your customer service skills and not just your accounting skills. The idea is to always highlight the skills and abilities you have that are relevant to your new position.
4. Remember the small detail of saying thanks
Your reference has taken time out of the day to write a reference that praises your abilities and qualifications. Send them a handwritten note or take them a coffee. It will go a long way to convey your gratitude and will leave a remarkable impression with them.
Elements to include in references
While a verbal reference and a letter of recommendation are very similar, there are a few elements that your written reference should definitely include:
- The date it was written
- The hiring manager’s name (if you know this), title, company name and address information of the company you will be interviewing with
- Your full given name in the body of the recommendation
- Length of time your reference has known you, as well as your work relationship (former boss, co-worker, etc.)
- Strengths and key qualities that differentiate you from other candidates who might apply for the job (using examples can help better explain these qualities)
- Any other qualifications the recommender believes makes you the best person for the position (your education, work experience, etc.)
- Reference’s name, signature and contact information (both email and phone) at the bottom of the letter
What if you can’t get a reference letter?
It is becoming more common for large corporate companies to not provide verbal or written references for previous employees. This is mostly related to presumed legal liability. Yet the legislation in place generally enforces that all references need to be fair and accurate. Contrary to popular belief, an employer can still give bad references – as long as they are true.
If someone was fired or had performance issues, as long as there is evidence (warning letters or reviews) it is acceptable to give a bad reference. Another reason for you to select your references thoughtfully.
But employment legislation in various countries has made it harder for employers to understand what they can or cannot say. So they err on the side of caution and provide a standard reference that confirms employment and dates worked only.
If this is the situation you face, there are a couple workarounds.
Speak to HR and confirm they will pass on details from your performance reviews
As reviews are not personal documents, your HR department will be able to speak to specifics of your performance reviews. If they are hesitant to pass on your review details, make sure they will confirm that you are in good standing with the company and eligible for rehire.
Ensure your references are aware of what your HR department will and won’t confirm before they call.
Ask them to provide a personal reference
Should a corporate policy be that references are not provided, ask your managers or supervisors if they will give a personal reference.
This means that when they are called, they let your potential employer know that they are providing a reference from their unique perspective and not from a corporate perspective. That way, it is their option of you and not the company’s opinion.
Remind them that all referrals are confidential
Whatever your references say about you, it is a confidential conversation between them and your potential employer. Neither is legally bound to disclose what is said during that conversation. Just knowing this piece of information can put a lot of people at ease.
Written references can give you a competitive edge
Though written references are often optional today, they could give you a competitive advantage you need when it comes to getting a job offer.
Prospective employers often like to have variety in the references they receive. Consider previous Managers; co-workers who trained you in your role; even a direct report if you are a Supervisor or manager yourself. These different perspectives create a better overall idea of who you are and will be as an employee.
The fact that they are not verbal references doesn’t make their content any less valuable when it comes to a recruiter or line manager considering you for a role.
References allow you to always be prepared
The job market is always a competitive one. Make sure you have written and verbal references, available at any time. This allows you to be prepared for your job hunt and have one less thing to be concerned about when you start the interview process.
Follow the Scouts’ motto and ‘Always be Prepared’.