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Your References: An Important Part of the Job Search Process

Career Tools  |  by Ellen Heffernan
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
Having another professional speak on your behalf as a reference is an important and critical part of a job search and should be managed with utmost care. All too often candidates simply submit a list of references and consider that aspect of the process complete. As a candidate, this laissez faire response to providing references will no longer serve you effectively in your job search process. Instead, you should think carefully about whom you ask to speak on your behalf, what a particular reference will be able to speak to in terms of your skills and experiences as a candidate, and if a potential reference can speak articulately to what makes you a strong candidate for the position.

Asking another professional to serve as a reference should be a deliberate, thoughtful, and strategic process on the part of a candidate. In considering whether someone can serve successfully as your reference consider in what context that person will know your work, responsibilities, and accomplishments. Consider a wide spectrum of references that may speak to different aspects of your skill set - for example, a faculty member that you have worked closely with, a colleague that you have done a project with from a national association, a person that has worked with you in a crisis situation, etc. Keep in touch with former supervisors as well as professionals that you have supervised. In the early stages of a job search process having the hiring institution speak with former supervisors and supervisees is perfectly acceptable, however, as a search progresses you will be asked to provide references from your current institution including your current supervisor.

Also consider your list of references in that aggregate - do you have balance in terms of current and prior professionals that can speak to the variety of your skills and experiences? Although all your references cannot be expected to speak to all of your strengths, can all of your references speak to at least two or three key leadership areas for you? Even though a person may have agreed to serve as a reference for you are you confident that they can speak thoughtfully about your work and not be flustered or rattled by the questions? Many times a person is willing to serve as a reference but is uncomfortable with the process and unintentionally does not serve you well.

As in all other aspects of your job search it is important to let your references know you are looking for a new position. Be certain to explain to your references what type of position you are seeking and update them on your current responsibilities and accomplishments. Send your references some background information on the position and the institution and, importantly, describe for them the reasons you are interested in the position and why you feel you are qualified. If you have already had interactions with the search committee it would be helpful to fill your reference in on what you think the committee is seeking in the successful person for the position. It is particularly important for your references to understand generally your job search process and the type of position that you are seeking, especially if that person is someone that you previously worked with and may not be current with regard to your career goals. The last thing a search committee wants to hear while they are conducting references on a candidate is that the reference has not had any recent contact with the candidate. Although the person serving as a reference is excited and willing to speak about the candidate, if he/she does not have any real context for the conversation it will not strengthen your position as a candidate.

When providing information about your references to the institution make sure you verify each of your references' contact information and do not hesitate to provide information as to the best way to reach your references. For example, are they willing to be called at home? Can they be contacted via e-mail? Would they mind being called on their cell phone? Are they leaving on vacation and not available for the next week? Also, double check phone numbers and addresses for accuracy and if your reference provides the number of his/her administrative assistant make sure that your reference has indicated to that person that they have agreed to serve as a reference on your behalf.

If you have a critical reference such as a former supervisor that is unwilling to speak on your behalf, or that you are not comfortable having this person speak on your behalf, you must be prepared to disclose this and speak candidly to the search committee about why this person may be a reluctant reference or, in fact, detrimental to your candidacy. It is critical that you get in front of such an issue and bring it clearly out into the open rather than try to cover it up or dodge it all together. Addressing the issue head on speaks strongly to your ability to address conflict and to your honesty. Be aware that any thorough vetting process will uncover these issues of concern. It is always better for you, the candidate, to be in the driver's seat. By being forthcoming, you will have the opportunity to frame the issue and put it in the most reasonable light.

It is also helpful to follow up with your references to see how the conversation went with the institutional representative. This is a key step as your reference will have a good sense of what the institution is focusing on with regard to your skills and experiences as a candidate for the position and, more importantly, where the institution might perceive weaknesses, or areas for growth, on your part. You might also seek feedback from your references concerning their impressions regarding the culture of the institution based on their recent conversation. Inquire about whether the caller was on time - or helpful when the reference struggled to understand the question? Did the caller have a good grasp of the responsibilities of the position and what the institution was seeking in the successful candidate? Was the caller a good ambassador for the institution and were they excited to be working there? All of this feedback will be helpful to you as the candidate!

Keep your references abreast of your job search status - especially when you land that terrific new position! Don't forget to send a note to your references to thank them for their help in the process. The reference process is an integral and critical step in the search process and more and more institutions are expanding their candidate vetting to also include a background check as part of the employment process. Having professionals willing to serve as references is vital to the process, their time is valuable, and you should ensure that your references have all the information that they need to speak well on your behalf.