21 December, 2013

The Truth About Employment References

I recently got a text message from a job seeker who was agonizing over what to put down under "references". The job application asked for the names and contact info of 2 people not related to him who also didn't work for the employer. 

He couldn't think of 2 people not related to him who would say nothing but good things about him if an employer asked. 

Employers don't ask you for personal references because they expect to get truthful, objective information about your potential value as an employee. Employers know that, unless you are a total moron, any reference provided by the applicant is going to say that the applicant walks on water and gives the workplace the pleasant smell of cookies. Employers ask for references for several reasons:
1. As a starting point for the REAL reference check. Employers use the references you provide to lead them to other people who may not tell them you smell like cookies and walk on water.  If you list a guy who worked with you at Theory X Management Corp a skilled reference checker knows how to get the applicant-provided reference talking and mentioning co-workers and others who may not have good things to say about you. The references you provide are a hunting license. 
2. Employers use the references you provide as a way of seeing if you have the judgment to provide references who might actually have knowledge of your work. If, for example, you list your pastor or your hairdresser you just demonstrated that you lack judgment to provide pertinent, relevant information when asked. 
3. Employers use your references to see if you know any business contacts that might benefit them if they hire you. 
4. Employers use your references to confirm or contradict items on your resume. 

There's a chance that some employers won't check your references at all because, as I said above, they know that if you're not a moron you won't list people who say bad things about you. Such employers just move on to finding references you don't know about; people connected to you on Linkedin, for example. 

This is the point where some so-called employment experts tell you to coach your references to say exactly what you want them to say and to stay "on script" and offer no information beyond what you coach them to say. This didn't even work before there was social media but nowadays it's impossible to coach all the people an employer may find who are willing to answer questions about you.

But I've buried the lead. Here's what you really need to know about references: if your candidacy for a job really hangs on what your references say about you or what your enemies say about you then you're probably not sufficiently well-connected to the employer to get the job. If an employer is actually contacting people to ask them questions about you there's a good chance you are still in the stranger category with that employer and, as I have written here before, in decades of headhunting work I never once saw an employer hire somebody to whom they weren't already networked through a mutual friend or trusted colleague or other trusted professional. 

Don't agonize over the references but do figure out who you and your potential boss know in common and ask that person to introduce you to the employer. Flattered that you consider them to be so influential, you'll be amazed at how many people are happy to introduce you to somebody they know who can hire you. 

Remember: you don't want to be in the position of playing the low percentage game of filling out applications, sending resumes to strangers and then sitting in a room or hallway waiting for an interview. You want to be in the high percentage game of being introduced to your new boss over coffee at Starbucks while the suckers send resumes to strangers.  if you're sufficiently well-connected to the employer you'll leap-frog over better qualified candidates and you may not even be asked for a resume until you already have the job.

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