It used to be that checking references was an informal process. You received an offer, gathered a handful of names – usually a former boss or two and a few others, and then submitted a list for the official “seal of approval”. As the competition for high paying positions has heated up, and as a consequence of a soft economy, an increasing number of candidates have begun to misrepresent significant career items, such as degrees, dates of graduation, compensation, and performance. In response, recruiters and HR managers have implemented more rigorous reference checking processes, even before making the most basic hiring decisions.
Knowing that your background will be scrutinized with a greater attention to the details, it is a lot more challenging for those of us who have left a prior position under less than ideal circumstances. Let me emphasize, every one of us has a skeleton hidden in the closet, so feeling stress about references is natural. It is how you address the “problem” that distinguishes you from other candidates. Performing occasional damage control to prevent or minimize unwanted feedback is critical, and establishing and managing references should be an ongoing process. It begins when you identify and plan a job search strategy and continues until you have landed a new position. It is a key, and often overlooked, step in the interviewing process that requires careful planning and attention, even if you are still employed. This is how you can begin:
1. Identify every one you know who could possibly serve as a reference. Include current and former bosses, senior level managers, peers, industry colleagues, friends, and if relevant, college contacts such as professors. References you thought you would never use might be perfect for certain jobs and targets, and a longer list will make it easier to customize your selections. Who you choose and why should vary according to each opportunity.
2. Do not wait until you have been asked to provide references to determine who you will use. Assemble your list long before you begin to interview and anticipate the potential problems that might arise if certain people are called versus others. You want to maximize the value of your references and think strategically about how to minimize those which may be damaging.
3. In an ideal world, it would be great if we could always maintain the best possible relationships and a flawless reputation. That is not likely. So, if some were damaged, it is not too late to perform an intervention. It is irresponsible not to anticipate, and try to resolve, potential problems that could jeopardize an offer. No matter how difficult it may seem, you must face these individuals, and try to turn them into advocates.
4. To clear the air, call or write the “bad” references, and ask them if they would be willing to speak positively on your behalf. Stress how important their support is to you both professionally and personally. As you re-establish contact, you may find that time and distance have moderated even the most intense feelings. Your old boss or colleague may have forgotten the circumstances surrounding your strained relationship and/or separation, or perhaps, will feel guilty about your unemployment. Make sure to follow-up on your call or meeting with thanks and a reminder which outlines the key points of your conversation.
5. If all else fails and the relationship is beyond repair, you will need a strategy to minimize the impact of negative information. Consider the following:
- Honesty is the best policy. Position the one bad relationship as an exception among many good, in fact, exceptional, relationships.
- Do nothing and hope that your former boss will not return a reference checking call, which is often likely.
- Company policy. If your former company does not allow managers to serve as references, then “hide” your boss. For example, you might explain that your boss, although a great supervisor and colleague, does not in practice respond to these sorts of requests. As an alternative, provide the name of another, equally senior manager you have worked with, who is willing to speak on your behalf.
- Use logic. Provide background information to show clearly and decisively why a particular reference would not be appropriate. For example, if you reported to your last boss for only a short period of time, perhaps six months or less, explain that he or she did not have a chance to become really familiar with your work, and therefore, would not have a rich enough perspective.
Roy Cohen ‘85 is a career counselor and executive coach who works with senior and mid level executives on managing life at work and career transition. He can be reached at RCohen621@aol.com.