Last week, I thought I had a phone stalker on my cell. I didn't recognize the number and the caller ID had a weird name. Finally, I picked up the phone. It turned out to be the head of HR for a company in NYC doing a reference check on an intern I had 5+ years ago. I was totally caught off-guard. I hadn't heard from this person in over two years, was given no warning I'd be contacted, and didn't even know what position he was applying for. I did my best to give a good recommendation, but I know there was confusion in my voice.
I hung up the phone and thought, "That was annoying." As a career coach, I know the solution is to let the young person know and counsel him to never let that happen again. But, I have to wonder how many references out there might be so annoyed by something like this that they'd just swear to never be a reference again?
Now more than ever, hiring managers are checking references. Why? Because they just don't trust all the digital personal branding and subjectivity that goes into it. First, there's the fact that you can make up stuff about yourself. People lie all the time about their experience, their degrees, etc. Second, a lot of job seekers think they are more talented than they really are. Hiring managers want to validate what they are seeing and hearing in interviews to make sure it's not hype.
Tips to Ensure Your References are Top-Notch
Here's what I teach my clients:
1) Ask in advance. Always call (don't email, make an effort!) a person first and ask if they would be willing to be a reference. Some people have very valid reasons for saying "no." You need to make sure you have a list of references that have all personally agreed to speak about you.
2) Explain why you need them. Share with those that agree to be your reference what you are up to in your job search. Describe to them the type of role you are looking for and the kinds of companies you are marketing yourself to. This helps them think about what they might say about you in advance so they can make sure they speak to your strengths.
3) Contact them by email before they get a call. If you are in the interview cycle with a company and get to the point where they say they are going to check references, you should immediately contact your references to give them a "heads-up." Share with them the details of the job and company. Be sure to tell them why you are excited to join the firm. This will get them motivated about being your reference and they'll be more likely to share your enthusiasm for the job as well. You want them to not only say your are worthy of the job, but that they know you are eager to join their team as well.
Finally, (and this last one is the most important):
4) Always follow-up with both a "thank you" and a "final update." You should always send your references a thank you email for taking the time to be your reference. However, even more important is the email you should send once the hiring process is over. Win or lose, you should let them know the outcome. They deserve to know. There is nothing worse than being a reference and never hearing from the candidate. It's downright rude - and it could lead to your reference never helping you again.
Never forget, references can make or break you getting a job offer. Being a reference is something people do as a favor to you. Do not ruin your references (and your reputation!) by failing to maintain them in the proper fashion.