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Rounding Up References

Posted on 23 August 2008

An effective job seeker learns to gain control of as much of the job search as possible, from applying for a position, to writing a resume, to interviewing. Small wonder, then, that the process of providing references can cause slight bouts of indigestion. For one, you’re not sure if your reference will be called by the prospective employer, nor are you certain of what your reference will say, or what questions he or she will be asked. Finally, you lie awake at night wondering if they’ll accentuate the positive, or bury your chances by citing crankiness, ineptitude, shifty-eyes or worse.

But with just a little due diligence, you can avoid most of the uncertainty/fear/insomnia, and get through the process without receiving any unforeseen jolts.

The Whats and the Whys

References are requested by prospective employers for two reasons: One, to gauge just how well you’ll fit into the company in terms of your work ethic, personality, skills and potential; and two, to see if you’ve shamelessly taken some factual liberties on your resume or application.

Some employers may check and some may not, but regardless, it is crucial that you choose the right references, sufficiently prime them and extend your deepest and sincerest gratitude after the deed is done.

Rounding Up References

Recent grads are not expected to have much related job experience, and for that reason if an employer calls your references, it will be to ascertain your potential both as a person and an employee.

So cover both bases. Get teachers who you worked closely with, or in whose classes you excelled — they’ll attest to your intelligence, work ethic and personality. Get a couple past bosses from your college jobs or internships. Even if the work is completely unrelated to the job you’re applying for, they will be able to attest to your professionalism, loyalty and temperament. If you’ve performed charity work, get a supervisor — he or she will attest to your virtue and sense of decency. This is important, as a person who spent three years in a soup kitchen is less likely to steal computers from work (barring any Robin-Hood-variety inclinations).

You’ll want to round up about five references, and readily provide three at any given time (the stable of five helps you avoid inundating each reference with phone calls).

After deciding on the best references, ask their permission. If they agree, inform them of the positions you are applying for, what qualities you would like stressed, or any helpful anecdotes you would like the caller to know about.

Wait a week after you’ve given the employer the reference’s contact information, and call them to see how it went. If the employer or reference voiced any concerns, get a grip on them, and work to assuage those concerns. The callback will provide you with a very targeted way to dispel uncertainty and convince the employer that these minor faults can be easily overcome.

Still Nervous?

While it is always wise to make sure you only list references that will give you a positive review, there is the occasional exception. For example, if you left a previous job on bad terms, and there is a gap in the work experience section of your resume that your prospective employer comments on, you’ll need to address the circumstances of the parting, and possibly provide your previous boss as a reference.

This is where things can get tricky, and where some ingenuity is key. If you’re worried about getting a bad reference, the simplest thing to do is to speak to the reference ahead of time, and request he/she steers clear of the negatives and focuses on the positives, as much as possible. Or, if the ex-boss plainly despises you, you could just refrain from providing him/her as a reference. If an employer comments on this omission, explain that the ex-boss is not the most qualified to provide insight into your work habits, personality and potential. Avoid lying outright; it could burn you badly later on.

And if the prospective employer still requires a word or two with the previous employer: spin, spin, spin. Put a good face on a questionable situation.

Also, there are many who will tell you that you needn’t worry about a vindictive ex-boss exacting revenge on you for a sour working experience — that giving a bum reference is prohibited by law. While this isn’t entirely false, it isn’t quite true either. A past employer is, like the rest of us, prohibited from making unsubstantiated or damaging statements. However, that doesn’t mean that you’re legally protected from an ex-boss’ telling a prospective employer of any actual illegal activity that resulted in your termination. In some cases he/she is legally obligated to tell of serious infractions, lest they be pegged later for withholding information.

If you’re really dying to know what a reference is saying about you, there are firms that pose as prospective employers, call references and provide you with tape recordings of their conversations. If you don’t want to drop $100 on the service, have one of your friends do it. Be warned though, it’s pretty illegal, and a misrepresentation charge never looks very good on a resume.

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