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The Dos And Don’ts Of Job References

When someone’s job is hanging on your words, or you’re hinging your hopes on someone else, a reference is worth getting right.

The Dos And Don’ts Of Job References
[Photo: EM Karuna via Shutterstock]

When you’re gunning for a new job, there’s a good chance that you’ll spend hours poring over every bullet point on your résumé, and spend even more time writing and rewriting your cover letter.

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But how much time do you spend prepping your list of references?

Yep, we thought so.

While most of us stress over other details–our outfits, our interview questions, our handshake–many of us likely don’t give nearly the same level of detail to the process of asking people to vouch for our professional accomplishments.

And that’s too bad, given that the strengthening job market means more hiring opportunities: Over a third of companies in a recent CareerBuilder survey report that they expect to hire full-time, permanent staff in 2015—that’s the brightest outlook since 2006.

And a glowing reference could be what gives job hunters the edge they need to shine over the competition, especially in today’s corporate culture where there’s a lot at stake if you hire a poor fit.

“The wrong people are hired all the time, and it costs a lot of money,” says 30-year headhunting veteran Jim Giammatteo, author of No Mistakes Resumes. ”Bad hiring also ruins careers. And much of this could be eliminated if reference checks were handled better.”

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So whether you’re a job seeker looking to foster the right reference relationships–or you’re acting as a reference and want to make sure you’re helping, not hurting, someone’s chances–here’s how to ace job reference etiquette.

Related: 5 Things Job Candidates Obsess Over—But Hiring Managers Don’t

6 Ways to Pick—and Prep—Proper References

Résumés and interviews may do most of the heavy job-hunting lifting for you, but hiring managers take them with a grain of salt: 58% have caught a lie on a résumé, and 33% have seen an uptick in résumé “embellishments” since the recession.

Enter your references, who can help verify that you’re the superstar you say you are.

But how can you ensure that your references will actually help you get the job–and make sure you’re not burning any bridges with them along the way?

1. Choose people with whom you’re friendly but not too friendly.

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With social media taking a larger role in the background-checking process, hiring managers aren’t just looking at your profile–they may also be digging into your references’ online personas to make sure they are reputable.

“It’s important to not only look over your own sites to ensure a prospective employer isn’t viewing any inappropriate or private commentary, but also give your references’ sites a quick glance [with that same eye],” says Jeff Shane, president of Allison & Taylor, a professional reference-checking and employment-verification firm.

So you might not want to pick someone who has his bachelor party plastered on Facebook—or even someone with whom you’ve taken a ton of innocuous, but still personal, photos. After all, your prospective employer doesn’t want biased feedback from a reference who appears to be a close friend.

On the flip side, a contact who has given you an online work shoutout could help your cause: Among hiring managers who hired candidates because of their positive social media, 30% said they did so because other people posted great references for them.

Related: Are You LinkedIn Optimized?

2. Make the reference request in person

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Email is a perfectly acceptable form of professional communication in most cases, but when it comes to asking someone to be a reference, do it in person–or at least over the phone–to improve the chances that you get buy-in.

“Make a list of the people you’re likely to ask to be a reference now, while you’re still in your current job, and invite them to lunch or call them to reconnect,” says Dave Carvajal, CEO of Dave Partners, a boutique headhunting firm. “Ask these colleagues for career advice and engage them in brainstorming around work issues–it’ll make them feel personally invested in your success.”

Calling or meeting in person has another benefit, notes Shane. “It’s a great opportunity to review your past responsibilities and remind that person of the successes you achieved when you worked together,” he says. “A quick chat can also help you gauge whether or not the reference will be glowing.”

3. Don’t tire your references out

Just the way you wouldn’t want to overstay your welcome in someone else’s home or annoy a friend by calling in too many favors, you also don’t want to overwhelm your references with repeated requests.

Giammatteo suggests using the same reference no more than three times. “It’s a time commitment, and you don’t want to disrespect your former coworker’s time by putting that person in a position where that colleague resents talking about your skill set,” he says. “You’re probably not the only one using them as a reference.”

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Related: The Perks (And Pitfalls) Of Job Hopping

4. Give your reference as much intel as possible

Just because you got the “yes” from your ex-boss agreeing to be a reference doesn’t mean you can leave her hanging once the résumés go out.

To make the process as seamless for them as possible, whenever you know a hiring manager is ready to reach out, give your references as many details as you can, including the type of position you’re applying for, and who might be calling.

Another to-do? Verify how your reference would like to be contacted–she may, for instance, prefer an email first to set up an appointment, rather than getting a cold call.

Also, check with your prospective employer whether they will, in fact, be calling versus sending an electronic reference request, which has become more popular. Your reference might prefer a quick phoner–if that’s the case, consider reaching out to the hiring manager and ask if it’s possible to make a call instead.

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5. Format your reference list comprehensively

The standard list of names and contact info is no longer sufficient for hiring managers these days—you should also include exactly which attributes which reference can attest to, Shane says.

Why? In a world where a hiring manager might spend 30 seconds skimming résumés, this approach can help further showcase your specific achievements.

“When you offer a reference list at the conclusion of an interview in a highly professional format, it can create a proactive and favorable impression,” Shane says.

Not only that, if your hiring managers know exactly which skills your reference can speak to, they’ll waste less time asking him questions he can’t answer.

6. Always follow up with a thank you

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You probably send the hiring managers a thank-you note after an interview, so why not add your references to the list?

“Each time your reference supports you with a new, prospective employer, send them a personal thank-you note–or, at minimum, an e-mail,” Shane says.

Better yet, stash a Starbucks gift card into your note, or offer to take your reference out to lunch. Not only is it a good way to show your appreciation, but you can also fill them in on how your job hunt is going.

Related: The Handwritten Thank-You Note After An Interview: Necessary Or Passé?

4 Ways to Be a Reference Rock Star

At any given time in our careers, we’ll either be the reference seeker or the giver.

So if you believe in karma–and you’re truly trying to help a former standout employee get to the next level–then you should be thoughtful about how to give a proper recommendation.

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Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll always be doling out glowing praise. It actually behooves you to be honest for both the new employer’s and employee’s sake.

So how do you maneuver the sometimes awkward territory that surrounds agreeing–or not–to be a reference?

1. Check with HR on reference protocol

Before you say yes or no to a reference request, check with your human resources department first–they may have rules in place for whether you can even speak to an ex-coworker’s previous experiences.

“Most companies have a formal policy whereby their managers are instructed to refer all reference requests to HR,” Shane says. “By giving candid reference commentary, you may be violating company policy–as well as, perhaps, local, state or federal laws–if any of that commentary might be perceived as unfavorable.”

2. If the answer is no, be honest why

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If what’s giving you pause to a reference request isn’t corporate policy but your colleague’s less-than-stellar work, then you might want to stick with some timeless guidance Carvajal abides by.

“I’m in the ‘follow Mom’s advice’ camp. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” Carvajal says. “If you cannot give a positive reference, don’t bother being a reference.”

And while you could give the “I’m too busy at the moment” excuse, honesty is probably the better way to go, says Giammatteo.

To let a requester down lightly, you could tell him that you don’t think you’re suited to speak to his skill set. Or you might outright admit that you weren’t happy with his performance, but frame it as not wanting to hurt his chances of landing the position.

“Of course, being this honest might cost you a relationship with this person, but it’s still the best way to handle it,” Giammatteo says.

3. Don’t be afraid to lead the conversation with the hiring manager

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While it may seem natural to wait to answer a question about a candidate, that approach may not convey the enthusiasm you have for your former coworker.

“Feel free to ask the hiring manager questions about what, exactly, the job duties entail, and what his take is on the candidate’s fit for the position,” Giammatteo says.

Then feel free to jump right in with detailed examples and anecdotes from your days together. “Volunteered information is often perceived as more honest,” he says. “A skilled reference doesn’t wait to be asked every question.”

4. Be upfront about what you can speak to–and what you can’t

Even if you’re totally gung-ho about helping your ex-assistant shatter the glass ceiling, you also won’t be doing her any favors by trumping her up more than you should.

Striking the right balance between a candidate’s strong suits and weaker points is a tricky–but crucial–part of the reference-giving process, says Giammatteo. “The last thing anyone needs is a job that isn’t a good fit,” he says.

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So don’t be afraid to give your reference a heads-up on what you think you’ll say about her strengths and weaknesses, so that she can prepare if asked questions about them later. Ultimately, your goal is to provide what Giammatteo calls a “position-specific” reference that isn’t about the person, but rather the job fit.

Giammatteo, for instance, once recommended his own brother for a sales job. But when he found out it was a management position, he made it clear that he didn’t think his brother was ready.

“I told them not to consider him for a management position–not without training,” he says. “They ended up hiring him as a sales rep, and he had a terrific 10-year career with them. I’m convinced that if he had gone in as a manager at that time, it wouldn’t have worked out.”

This article originally appeared in LearnVest and is reprinted with permission.

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