Follow by Email

Friday, May 2, 2008

How to handle reference requests

You've read the ad for your dream job. This is it, the ONE. But what's this? Your prospective employer wants to see your references BEFORE you even get to the interview? What should you do?

First, treat your references list with the same care that you treat your credit card numbers. Identity theft and privacy abuse are real risks. Never put your references on job boards or send them with your resume when applying for jobs. Only disclose them to employers with whom you’ve fallen in love – AFTER the first interview, when you think you’d like to work there. They may ask in advance, who cares? As a corporate recruiter, I’ve never avoided a candidate because they didn’t fork over their references immediately. I actually consider it revealing of a candidate’s judgment and ability to recognize an unreasonable request. It’s a bit of a game, like salary negotiation. I can understand why some recruiters would request references up front. They may have been burned in the past when presenting candidates with weak references to the hiring manager and want to avoid a similar situation. They may be getting their ducks in a row for a demanding or time-strapped manager. They may just think they’re “supposed” to get them in advance. Regardless, this is personal information and should be treated as such, in as graceful a manner as possible. “I’ll zip my references over to you the second I learn I’m a finalist. Can’t wait to get that call!” or “Gosh, it seems I’ve left my references in my other briefcase, I’ll send them over as soon as I find out I’m the top candidate,” or “My ex-boss Joe said he’d be happy to provide a reference. I’ll email his contact information over as soon as we’re at that point.” Smile and change the subject.

If you have several irons in the fire, one strategy to avoid over-burdening your references with phone calls is to ask them for a letter of reference. Offer to write it for their signature if they agree but don’t produce one. Try to get it on letterhead. Having letters of reference available will help you to appear organized and well liked. Note: In the future, try to get this task done before you leave the job. How do you do this without spilling the beans that you’re looking for another job? Say you have a volunteer opportunity and the agency wants to check your references in advance. Better yet – actually pursue a volunteer job where you get to do something that’s a bit of a stretch for you. It’s good karma, great experience, and lovely networking occurs when you’re working alongside other volunteers. Another great time to ask for a reference letter is when your boss is leaving the company. Even when your boss is just moving departments, it’s easy to say, “We’ve had such a great working relationship, and I’ll miss working alongside you. Could you write a letter so that in five years when one of us leaves the company it will be easy to remember my accomplishments in this role?” When you actually announce your departure sometime later, ensure that your manager is still willing to serve as a reference, remind them of the fabulous letter they wrote, and you’re all set.

At the end of the interview, if you’re pretty sure you’re interested, you can show your prospective employer the original reference letters. At your discretion, provide a copy of the letter or offer to email one if you need to buy some time. Pleasantly ask the recruiter or hiring manager to make the reference check call when you’re the final candidate. They’ll already have the letters, so that should tide them over.

Another consideration regarding reference letters is that many agency recruiters and headhunters use references sheets as shopping lists. You’ve provided the name, job title, direct number and email address of decision makers and potential “steals” that they’ve been searching for for months, how nice of you! Sure, they’ll call your references and talk about you, but their objective is also to talk up their agency’s services or a fabulous opportunity with your reference’s competitor. If a recruiter won’t set you up on interviews without seeing your references, that’s a red flag that they are shopping your references list.