Reference checking is no longer just a formality you have to get through before you start a new job. More companies today realize that one of the best indicators of future success is past performance.
As employers start to put greater emphasis on what previous managers and co-workers say about job candidates, job seekers should take steps to make sure that their references are assets, not liabilities.
A private coaching client of mine shared a tragic scenario where, two years ago, a client sailed through the interviews, got the offer, and the company was “doing routine reference checks.” A few days later the client got a phone call saying, “Sorry, we are unable to employ you. Thank you for your time.”
Here’s some advice from Ray Bixler, CEO of SkillSurvey, a company that is changing the way references are being contacted via an online approach. This not only improves feedback from references, but allows companies to check references earlier in the hiring process. Employers use SkillSurvey to get a detailed picture of candidates’ past performance.
The key thing to understand is that hiring is a leap of faith. “Without having actually seen a prospective employee at work, companies have to depend on résumés and interviews, or even personality assessments,” Bixler said. “But these are all areas where the job candidate is self-reporting. A few strong job references can set a candidate apart from the crowd.”
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Choose your references carefully
You might be most comfortable selecting peers at your past jobs as references, but be careful. Hiring managers want to see a good number of former managers as well. Their word counts for a lot, so make sure you have a balanced list of references.
“Beyond picking people who are confident in your abilities, make sure they can speak to the skills you will need in the job you’re applying for, especially those all-important soft skills like professionalism, interpersonal skills, problem solving and adaptability, and personal values,” says Bixler.
2. Cultivate your references – stay in touch
You know the drill. When you leave a job you promise to stay in touch, but few actually do. This could be a big mistake. Former managers and co-workers will make much better references if you keep them in the loop.
“Schedule a check-in once or twice a year with people you’ve enjoyed working with at former jobs – it’s a great way to keep people updated on your latest successes and your future plans,” counsels Bixler. “Always show your gratitude and keep building the relationship by asking what you can do for them. Plus, keeping in touch will show you where you stand in their eyes, which is very useful when it comes to picking references.”
3. Make sure you’re the first person to contact your references
Before you provide your references’ contact information as part of your application process, you reach out to your potential references and ask if you can give their names. If they say yes, you tell them why you’re looking for a new position, why you hope to work at the company where you’re interviewing, and how all of this fits into your long-term goals. You also remind them of the time you worked with them, your good memories, and your key successes. When the hiring manager calls, your references will have plenty of detailed information to share with them.
If your references get a call from a potential hiring manager or an online survey out of the blue, they will be caught off guard. Sure, they might say nice things about you, but they probably won’t have many details come to mind.