Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I don't normally blab about job candidates and their errors in judgement beyond the confines of my office and a few close friends, but frankly, errors in judgement are becoming epidemic.

Today's issue: References.

In this age of instant gratification through social media and the like, it's difficult to look at a reference for what it truly is.  So, to get everyone on the right page, here is the first tried and true rule:

If you would not ask someone for a reference in person (two actual people sitting in the same room, looking at each other, having a dialogue), don't ask that person for one... at all.... ever. The impersonal nature of many modern forms of networking and communication has lead job seekers down a path of equally impersonal relationships.  A reference is someone you respect who is willing to put their professional neck on the line to tell an employer that you are great.  Not good... great.  The job market is tight and good won't get you the job you are looking for. The bonus to this advice?  If you are having an open dialogue, you can tell your reference what you are looking for, what you really hope to accomplish, and why you are a great fit.  You are simply having a conversation with someone you trust, but a strong reference will regurgitate every positive thing you've pointed out when asked.

A great reference knows that if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.  But all references aren't gems...

If you aren't sure what a person will say about you, don't use them as a reference. This seems intuitive.  Having looked at over 2500 job candidates this year alone, I can tell you, it's not. What would someone say are your weaknesses?  Do they think you take initiative?  What about the quality of your work?  Are you efficient?  Do you dress professionally?  At the Christmas party last year, did they see you throw up in the ficus?  Choose people who when asked to rate you should give you a ten.  If you believe, 100%, that they will give you a ten out of ten, they may give as low as a seven.  If you think they will give you a seven, anticipate a five and find a new reference.

The difference between a standard reference and an inside man can spell disaster for candidates if they don't consider the unique nuances of the relationships at play, which leads us to:

If a reference works for the company where you have applied, enjoys his job, and respects his coworkers, he will be far more honest about you. Good and bad.  If my friend Bill applies to work for a large athletic apparel company in Oregon where I don't live or work, I would probably tell the hiring manager who calls all about Bill's strengths and what he brings to the team.  If Bill applies to work in my office, I will tell my boss that Bill brings a lot of strengths to the table, but he also has difficulty completing tasks on time and he loves jazz flute... a little too much.  A common question for references is, "would you hire this person if you had the opportunity?"  That answer may be "yes" only if the chance of actually having to hire that person is zero.

Worried you don't have enough references who think you are glowing?  Is the phrase "absence makes the heart grow fonder" running through your mind?  Stop right there.

Don't use references that you have not stayed in touch with and take time to maintain relationships with references that matter. A reference letter, no matter how glowing, dated October 2010 makes me wonder why you stopped doing great work in November 2010. Have you not been able to gain new references?  Have you stopped making a positive impact on your surroundings? It is the same concept with references you provide for personal contact from the hiring manager.  Six months is the maximum amount of time you should pass without connecting in some form.  When asked when they knew you, 2007 to 2009 is not good... unless you have maintained meaningful contact. Meaningful contact changes that "2007 to 2009" to "since 2007, we are still in contact."

Don't wait until you need a reference to update someone you knew in 2004.  Your two kids, the move to Nashville, and the subsequent layoff and industry change will likely be too much to take in.  Besides, people really like to talk about themselves. So my last advice:

Yes, you are special, but meaningful contact is not all about you.  Keep in mind, your reference thinks they are special too.  Meaningful contact with an educator includes updating them on your employment status, additional education, and projects since graduation.  It means doing things that continue to make you stand out and reminding them on a constant basis that you are an excellent reflection of the university.  Now give back... congratulate a professor on tenure or her journal article, ask how his research is going, offer your time to help grow his programs. For employers, meaningful contact is staying in the same industry, working with them on side projects (think volunteer work or non-profit boards), and keeping them up to date on how you have excelled since working for them.  It's maintaining a personal connection in addition to a professional connection. 

It's a lot to take in, but it can make the difference between an offer letter and a rejection letter.

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