Article AJC


Below is one of many articles that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution in the Sunday jobs section.

Make your list and check it twice

Carefully chosen references can be key to getting the job

By Laura Raines

For ajcjobs

You’re at the end of a long and arduous job search. The hiring manager is ready to make you an offer. He just wants to check your references first. Unless you’ve taken the time to choose and prepare these people well, you could find yourself out the door and back to square one.

“References are one of the most overlooked and misused aspects of the career transition process,” said Bruce Dreyfus, managing partner of The Dialogue Consulting Group. “Your references are one of the most precious things you have as a job-seeker. You can always make more money. Finding new references isn’t so easy, so guard them well.”

Jose De La Cruz, Southeast division human resources manager of Manpower, discusses a resume with staffing specialist Nisa King. While many job-seekers focus on the importance of the resume, they often invest far less time and effort into cultivating references, experts say, and that’s a mistake. De La Cruz says that employers’ policies on not giving out information about former employees mean that many hiring managers are putting more emphasis than ever on candidates’ lists of references.

The time to think about references is before you start your job search, when you’re devising your action plan, experts say. Choose carefully.

“These people will be your ‘validators.’ They will confirm that you have done what you say you have done — and done it well,” Dreyfus said. “Who you choose and what they say can affect the base salary, title and level of responsibility of an offer.”

Often, people don’t put as much thought into it as they should initially, because references aren’t needed until the end of the process, said Bob Isaacs, a registered corporate career coach in Atlanta. “It’s the resume that gets you in the door and the interview that gets you the offer, but checking references ranks right up there with the other selective tools that hiring managers use to make sure they are hiring the right person for the job — and, yes, they do check them.”

In today’s competitive market, companies want to make successful hires, because replacing someone is time-consuming and costly.

“They want to cover all the bases and make sure the candidate will be a good fit. That may include a background check and credit check, as well as calling references,” he added. “A good reference can be the icing on the cake that tells the prospective employer that you have the skills and qualifications he wants, or it could be the step that weeds you out of the running.”

More valuable than ever

With new employment laws and procedures in place, references are even more valuable, said Jose De La Cruz, Southeast division human resources manager of Manpower, a global employment-services firm.

“It used to be that a prospective employer could call a past employer to verify employment and gather general information about the quality of a person’s work,” he said. Today, most human resources departments will confirm only dates of employment, title and, possibly, salary.

“If you ask if the person is rehirable or what kind of worker he was, you’ll most likely be told they don’t answer those types of questions,” De La Cruz said. “Because of that, employers are relying more on the references that the candidate supplies.

“The exception to not giving out information is if the HR department fears a possible lawsuit. If, for example, you embezzled funds and are being considered for a new money-handling job and your past employer doesn’t mention the cause for your dismissal, he could be held liable.”

“You want someone who knows you, the quality of your work and how you operate. Personal references [friends and family] who will just say good things about you are a waste of time. Anyone can be a good reference, regardless of status and rank, if they know you and what you do, but higher-level people may carry more weight.”

JOSE DE LA CRUZ
Southeast division human resources manager of Manpower

Some human resources departments pass the “no talk” rule down to their employees. That means former bosses or co-workers may have to decline being references, or they may ask that prospective employers call them at home. Not knowing whom you can count on is another reason to ask potential references early in your search.

Whom to ask? “You want someone who knows you, the quality of your work and how you operate,” De La Cruz said. “Personal references [friends and family] who will just say good things about you are a waste of time.”

He put references into three categories: employment-related, professional and academic. For students with little work experience, references from professors may dominate the list, although an internship supervisor or another student from a team project also could be good possibilities.

“We advise students to develop those relationships with professors and administrators throughout their college career, instead of waiting until they are ready to graduate,” said Marcia Jones, career counselor with Georgia State University Career Services.

Employment-related references can be former supervisors, upper-level executives (if they know you), peers, subordinates or clients from former workplaces.

“It should be someone who interacted with you enough to know your capabilities and style, not just your job title,” Dreyfus said.

“Anyone can be a good reference, regardless of status and rank, if they know you and what you do, but higher-level people may carry more weight,” De La Cruz said. Choosing a good cross-section (three to eight) will give employers a more complete picture of you.

Bad ex-boss?

Many hiring managers prefer to talk to past bosses. If you and your boss didn’t get along or if you’re still working for him, be honest. Tell interviewers upfront that contacting your current employer could jeopardize your job. Also explain why personality or management-style differences wouldn’t make your boss the best reference. Substitute a higher manager in the company, if possible, or a former boss.

“Even someone who worked with you years ago can be a fine reference if you had a good relationship and the skills you had then apply to the present position,” Isaacs said.

When thinking about prospects, don’t overlook professional references. The people you get to know through professional, civic or nonprofit organizations may be your best references. If you led a successful fund-raising campaign at the local hospital or your church, the co-chair, hospital CEO or minister could attest to your organizational, sales and marketing skills and your reputation in the community.

When seeking references, the golden rule applies. Treat them as you would like to be treated. Ask permission to use them in your job search and tell them about the type of work you’ll be seeking.

Prep work

Bruce Dreyfus, managing partner of The Dialogue Consulting Group, says that people often underestimate the power of having good references. “Your references are one of the most precious things you have as a job-seeker. You can always make more money. Finding new references isn’t so easy, so guard them well,” he said.

“Try and get a sense of what they think of you as a person and a contributor,” Isaacs said. Avoid people you are unsure of, who seem ambivalent or who might have an ax to grind.

“You can prepare a reference by reminding them how you worked together, some characteristics about yourself and what you accomplished,” Dreyfus said. “Since people are busy, you might even e-mail them some facts or points that they could use.” Answer any questions they might have and make sure to note when and how they prefer to be contacted, such as by a cellphone number, at the office or at home.

“The worst thing you can do is not tell your references that you are using them,” De La Cruz said. When your people are prepared, you can avoid responses such as “John who?” or “He asked you to call me?,” which aren’t the ideal first impression.

“Never, ever — ever — include your list of references on your resume, especially when posting electronically, because then you have no control over when and how often they’ll be called,” Dreyfus said. “Even your best friend will grow weary of too many calls and begin to give a less-than-glowing report.”

Requests for references should come with a job offer or pending job offer. You can have a separate sheet ready or ask to call later, after you’ve had time to reflect on which three references would be best to use for this position. If a job application requests references, leave that part blank; tell prospective employers you’ll be happy to furnish references when they are ready to hire you.

Let your references know a prospective employer will be calling. Tell them about the company, the position and what kind of questions may be asked based on your previous interviews.

‘Hidden agenda’

“Be aware that a hiring manager may have a hidden agenda when talking to references,” Dreyfus said. He may be seeking verification only — that you did what you said you did — or he may be using the reference as a consultant to reinforce things he likes or doesn’t like about you. If a prospective employer has reservations, he could be looking for reasons to eliminate you or information to validate that he has made the right decision.

“It’s a good idea to check back later to see what was asked. It might give you extra ammunition to close the deal,” Dreyfus said.

As a common courtesy, let your references know about the outcome of your job search, and always thank them for their assistance.