Professional References: Where are They When You Need Them?

Thanks to a recent comment during a phone consultation with a client, I decided it was time to write a post about professional references. As we all know, you’ll be expected to provide references at some point in the interview process–typically, when the company has decided it’s seriously interested in considering you and wants to find out more about you. A lot could be said about the subject of references, and I might do another post or two on it later. For now, though, I’m thinking about the importance of acquiring references before they “go away.”

Former employers/managers can provide great job references

Or not, as the case may be. For one thing, if they’re busy, they might intend to respond to your request for a reference and just never get around to it. For another, they might provide a more or less generic reference that basically says, “Mary Smith was a very hardworking employee, and we were sorry to see her go.” Although it might seem strange, you can help the process along by giving some suggestions on the types of information you’d love to see in their comments (assuming they agree with your suggestions!). The main point is: try to get them to include some specific value statements; generic won’t cut it.

Request professional references as soon as possible

If you’ve just left a company (whether voluntarily, through a layoff or whatever), it’s not too late to request references or recommendations from former managers there. Even better: ask them before you’re officially out the door and then follow up with them soon afterward. Be polite, of course, but also be persistent if the promised reference doesn’t show up reasonably soon. Waiting too long could end up making the referrer unreachable. Worst case, the individual could pass on without having provided the promised recommendation. This might sound cold, but realistically it’s a possibility you should consider.

A less extreme example would be that you have lost touch with the person and have no idea how to reestablish contact. (These days you might find him/her again via sources such as LinkedIn, unless the person never joined it or took his/her profile down after retirement.) Also, memory can be a fragile thing, and the former boss might eventually get a little fuzzy about your contributions years ago. After all, life goes on, and he or she undoubtedly has other things to think about besides your desire for a professional reference–hard as that might be for you to believe!

Get your recommendations “out there” and working for you

Although employers you are interacting with might not request your references up front, you can and should take advantage of opportunities to put that information out into the world early on. LinkedIn is a great place to start. You need at least 3 recommendations to have a 100% LinkedIn profile, but there’s no limit on the maximum number you can have. Of course, you’re not allowed to write them; the individual needs to do that. However, you do have the final say on whether or not the recommendation appears in your profile. If it contains errors or other undesirable information, you can request that the person revise and resubmit it. Ultimately, the goal is for your references to testify to potential employers about your value as you have demonstrated it in the past.

Of course, no one requests or publishes a negative reference (a contradiction in terms), so potential employers might take yours with a grain of salt; but not obtaining the recommendations at all could be a serious career mistake. Life in general is littered with “I wish I had”; avoid this one if you can!

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