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Avoid these reference mistakes

Career Collective post: Once every month or so, a group of career professionals blog on a subject topical and timely for a job seeker. We’ll post our thoughts on our own blog and link to the post of our colleagues on the same topic.

This month’s topic: “Preparing for success…What should job seekers do now to prepare for interviews?”  Sometimes a long-time job search winds up in an interview scheduled with little lead time. Responses from others contributors are linked at the end. Follow the hashtag #CareerCollective on Twitter.

I was having lunch with a friend a few years ago when a former coworker of hers entered the restaurant. It had been years since they worked together or even seen each other. They exchanged hugs and “how ya beens” quickly catching up on each other’s lives.

The former coworker (we’ll call her Janet) shared that her family was moving to Raleigh in a few weeks and she would soon be looking for a new job in a new town. What she said next floored me. “I’m so glad I ran into you. Tell ‘Dr. Bob’ I’m going to use him as a reference when I start filling out applications next month.” Up to this point, I sat back and enjoyed watching two former medical office coworkers get reacquainted. It crossed my mind to hand her my card and suggest she’d need a good resume to launch this search, but didn’t feel it proper to impinge on this reunion with a sales pitch for my services, so I remained quiet.

Hearing Janet arbitrarily decide to it was OK to “tell” someone she was going to use them as a reference and relay that message through a third party was more than I could take. I joined the conversation. I asked Janet if she’d spoken with Dr. Bob recently.

J: “Oh no. It’s been years since I even thought about that job. Running into “Diane” {my friend} reminded me he’d be a good person to use for a reference.”
Me: So how long has it been since you’ve had contact with Dr. Bob?
J: Oh, about 10 years?
Me: And you’re sure he’ll remember you?
J: No way he’d forget me.
Me: And you don’t think he’d mind if you used him as a reference, without his permission?
J: He’d be happy to do this for me.

Do you see the red flags and assumptions in this approach?

I told Janet I was a resume writer and gently explained how this approach to listing references wasn’t in her best interest. She listened politely then interjected, “Gee. I guess you’re right. I won’t use him as a reference … unless I decide to call him. Thank you.”

On the way home, my friend said, “I’m so glad you stopped her from giving Dr. Bob’s name for a reference. She seems to forget, her last day at work, she pulled a bunch of Dr. Bob’s partner’s client file, documented how she disagreed with Dr. Sue’s methodology and diagnosis, indicating what she thought “should” have been done for these patients. She left that tall stack of folders on Dr. Bob’s desk. He wasn’t happy the next morning when he came in to the pile on his desk with “opinions” now documented as part of the client’s chart. There’s no telling what he would have said if someone called asking about her.”

Recently I worked with a client who didn’t get along with her boss. She asked if I would do a reference sheet for her too. I agreed and instructed her to put together a list of people and I’d format it to match the rest of her career documents. She paused, “I really don’t want to use my current boss as a reference.” I said, “OK. Don’t then.” She continued, “But don’t I ‘have’ to list his name? Isn’t that what you’re ‘supposed’ to do?”

Another client was convinced she “had to have” a reference from every place she worked and was stressing because some earlier employers were no longer in business and she’d not kept up with someone from every place she’d worked for the last 20 years.

It’s time to take the “supposed to dos” out of the equation. Following are some reference guidelines (in no particular order) to help you avoid the mistakes listed above and ensure your references help, not hinder your search:

1. Don’t use someone as reference unless you’ve asked permission and updated them on your career goals. IF they are called, you want them to support and enhance your search. They can’t do that if they don’t know you’ve given out their name, don’t remember you or don’t what you seek.

2. Unless you are 100% sure of what someone will say about you, don’t use them as a reference – period. “She does a great job … when she shows up for work.” is not a good reference

3. Give your references a copy of your current resume. Coach them on the points you’d like reiterated if they are called. This is your search. You know what your potential employers are looking for because you’ve done your homework. Don’t expect your references to know the nuances of your search. Tell them.

4. Touch base with your references to let them know how the search is going. Keep them in the loop if you think there’s a chance they might get called after a promising interview. Job searches can last six to eight months or longer. Stay in touch during that time so they’re reminded you’re searching.

5. If everyone knows you by one name, but you’re conducting your search using your formal given name, be sure to let your references know that while they know you as “Bobby Smith”, they’ll get a call asking about “Todd Robert Smith.” Don’t assume they’ll know you use middle name and a nickname of that to boot. Tell them.

6. Don’t assume that the only reference checking a potential employer will do is from the list you hand them. Employers check your online presence. They employ third-party agencies to check backgrounds. You have no control over how they’ll check on you or who they’ll contact in the process. Take control of the one small piece you can influence by having well-prepared individuals waiting in the wings to sing your praises.

7. Don’t send your reference list with every single application. Respect your references. Only give out their information if asked and only for positions you truly want. They’re doing you a favor. Don’t wear them out with calls about jobs you have no intention of taking. And don’t overload a potential employer with information they didn’t request either.

8. Leave “References available upon request” off the bottom of your resume … of course they are. No need to state the obvious.

9. Have a list of references readily available. Bring a hard copy of them with you to the interview. If you’re asked for references, you want to avoid that “deer in the headlights” look and you surely don’t want the added stress of scrambling to get everyone on the same page at the last minute. You may never be asked for them, but take the time to gather and prep them, just in case.

10. Three to five professional references usually suffices, but if asked for more or less, follow the hiring company’s request. And remember, “professional” doesn’t necessarily mean paid. Don’t overlook the volunteer connections you’ve made along the way. Some companies want personal references too. You spouse / significant other is not the person to use in this instance. Select a non-related, long-time friend.

Is it crazy for company to use a candidate-provided list to verify the information the candidate provided? Personally, I think so, but it’s an expected piece of the hiring process. Use it to your best advantage. Dump the “shoulds” and arbitrary “have to’s” from the process and ensure you have people willing to actively and positively participate in your search. And when all is said and done, don’t forget to the take the time to THANK THEM.

Career Collective

Here’s what my colleagues have to say:

Sit Down and Panic. The Interview is Yours @GayleHoward

How to Stand Out in a Job Interview @heathermundell

Avoid These Reference Mistakes @DawnBugni

Unspoken Secrets of Job Interviewing Prep: How Your Nonverbal Presentation and Behaviors Impact the Impression You Make @KatCareerGal

Prep for Interviews Now: Snuff out the Elephant in the Room Later! @chandlee << not working yet

What Should Job Seekers Do Now to Prepare for an Interview @erinkennedycprw

Take a Ride in the Elevator Before You Interview @barbarasafani

Are You Ready for the Elephant in the Room? @WorkWithIllness

“Tell Me About Yourself” (Oh, Yikes!), @KCCareerCoach

The job interview as a shared narrative @WalterAkana

Prepare your references for job search success @Keppie_Careers

No Pain No Gain In Job Search and Interview Prep @ValueIntoWords

Job searching? Take a cue from the Boy Scouts @LaurieBerenson

Preparing for Career Success Starts with Interviewing the Employers @JobHuntOrg

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  1. Gayle Howard says:

    Fantastic post Dawn. Agree with every single point you’ve made. I had a client once who missed out on a job (before he came to see me I hasten to add). His reference had said: “Oh yes John can absolutely be relied upon to show discretion. Hmm… except for that time he was accused of leaking information to the press, but you know that wasn’t entirely his faulty and I do think he was kind of the fall guy for that but…..”

    His candidacy slipped further and further away as she prattled on. She actually told him ALL about it when she called it. She was thrilled with her honesty and told them the whole story. As you say, brief your references on what to say. If “John” had checked with her he may have either taken her off the reference list or led her down a different path!

  2. […] Avoid These Reference Mistakes @DawnBugni […]

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rosalind Joffe and Meg Montford, Leslie Camacho. Leslie Camacho said: Avoid These Reference Mistakes @DawnBugni (via @KCCareerCoach) […]

  4. Dawn,
    Your post further proves the complexity of job search, and the need for thoughtful action steps for EACH and every part of the process. Ten guidelines to ensure your references help, not hinder your job search – wow! And each one SO important.

    I especially like #3 – the point about sharing a copy of your resume with your reference, and coaching them on the points you’d like them to speak to when called upon. You’re right! Don’t expect the reference to know the nuances of your search / your target audience’s needs.

    SPOT on!


  5. […] and Panic. The Interview is Yours @GayleHoward How to Stand Out in a Job Interview @heathermundell Avoid These Reference Mistakes @DawnBugni Unspoken Secrets of Job Interviewing Prep: How Your Nonverbal Presentation and Behaviors […]

  6. Dawn,

    Great post and so on target. I’ve seen many candidates make these very mistakes…your post is a great reminder of best practices in this area. If only Janet had thought of Dr. Bob as a reference as she left her position–she could have made a great impression if she left the office with tips on how her replacement could support his work instead of how he could do better!

    All the Best,

    P.S. My post is working now:

  7. Dawn: I am so glad you wrote this post! You’ve included wonderful stories and a truly inclusive list of 10 Dos and Don’ts! Managing references professionally is crucial and I think many people just don’t understand what they can control within the process! Nice work!

  8. Such excellent points, Dawn! When a job seeker has made it all the way to the point where the potential employer is checking references, being blown out of the water by a reference giver is a tragedy. I’ve seen everything from bad contact information (old/wrong phone number!) to “Who? Never heard of him/her!” Opportunity lost. What a shame.

  9. Olivia says:

    any advice when you were let from a position, have an amicable colleague reference from that job, but because you did not agree with why you were let go and are not on amicable terms with your past supervisor– what do do when Jobs ask for your last supervisor/job, and if they can contact them? when there isnt a way to explain this relationship, only a simple yes or no field. it always frustrates me!


  10. Jobs says:

    I’ve made the mistake of not telling a reference that I placed him on my resume. That didn’t work out well for me. From now on I tell the people even before my resume goes out.

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