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Giving good references can be just as important to your career as getting them, are you ready?

It’s easy to see how getting a good reference can help you get the job you want, but often times giving good references can be equally important. In a day and age where the average tenure at any given company in virtually every industry is less than 3 years, you are forced to maintain a strong network if you want to avoid a long stay in the unemployment line. To maintain a strong network, that means both keeping, and giving great references. There are specific actions you can take to ensure you are both giving and receiving great references.

Have you recently been asked to be a reference?

Should you, or shouldn’t you give a reference? I have a simple recommendation. If you can honestly give a good reference, then do it, and if not, then don’t, but make the decision, stick by it and see it through all the way. Every decision you make that involves your reputation with other people, needs to be made based on what’s best for YOU, first and foremost. If you cannot give a good reference I recommend not doing it because there are too many risks involved. Not only will you put yourself at risk for defamation lawsuits (please do a Google search on “giving references” to learn all the risks – after you’ve read this article in its entirety), but you also make it known to an employer that you have no trouble trashing someone else’s reputation.

If you should ever find yourself applying to that same company, or to a company where one of the people who checked the reference has since then moved on to (again, average tenure in any career is less than 3 years) and their only memory of you is how you trashed that other person, then you potentially lose that opportunity. There are LOTS of reasons not to give bad references.

How do you get out of it? Simple. “my company has a policy against giving out references.” Those policies are extremely common due to the potential liability risks to the organization. Hide behind the policy, don’t offer to be a reference for spite so you can “get even” with that terrible employee/colleague by giving a bad reference. That may feel great for about 10 minutes, but it can do years of damage to your career, it’s not worth it. Be sure to tell the person asking if you are not able to be a reference for them. It’s important not to let them think you can be a reference, then their potential employer calls and you tell the employer you can’t. The employer will assume the person never bothered to even ask you if they could use you as a reference, because if they had, you obviously would have told them.

While there are lots of reasons not to give bad references, there are significantly more reasons to give good ones. You will strengthen your networking relationship with that person, you will be introduced to more people in the industry in a positive way, and you will get your name out to more people in a favorable light based on what you say about the person. Remember the old saying, ‘What Peter tells me about Patrick, tells me more about Peter than it does Patrick.’

So how do you give a great reference?

The key is to be prepared. Let the person who is asking you to be a reference know that you would be glad to be a reference for them, but you want to be ready for the call so they need to let you know ahead of time when they believe someone will be calling. Let them know that if someone catches you without warning, you’ll certainly do your best, but you won’t be as effective for them as you could have been. While you have them on the phone, don’t be afraid to ask them what type of a job are they’re looking for, and where they are looking. If you can offer any advice, or job leads, or even names of people you know at the companies they are applying to, you will immediately strengthen your networking ties with them. If you should ever need their help in the future, they will be more likely to help you in your time of need.

Next, ask if they are a part of any online networking groups, such as If they are, let them know you will give them a recommendation. When others can see testimonials about them and the quality of their work, it will help their search. By the way, when people who visit their profile read their recommendations, they will also read WHO made that recommendation. Very often people will check out your profile and learn more about you. When you speak favorably about other people, that reflects favorably on you, it speaks to your character as a person and it promotes your appearance as good contact to know.

Be sure to follow up with them. As soon as they ask you, go to your Outlook calendar, or whatever type of organizer you use and put a reminder in there for 3 weeks from now to ask them how their search is going if you haven’t heard anything from them up to that point. Checking in shows you care and strengthens relationships.

When they do contact you to let you know someone may be calling you soon about a reference, now is the time to start preparing. Ask them for a copy of the resume they sent to the client. Since many people have multiple resumes, make sure you get the right copy. Ask them for a job description of the position they are applying to so you can ensure you are focused on the right things. Don’t be afraid to ask them directly what strengths they want you to talk about. Last but not least, ask them if they felt there were any areas in their interview where they felt they didn’t present themselves as well as they wished they had. For example, if they felt they didn’t express their experience in managing projects through to completion well enough, then you will be able to help make the case for them.

To GET a great reference, just reverse process!

First, just like the person described above did with you, ask permission. It’s important to never assume people will be references for you, and you should always ask at the time you may need them. Meaning, just because Joe said he would be a reference for you the last time you were looking for a job 8 years ago does NOT mean he will be reference for you today. As a recruiter, I cannot tell you how many times I call people and explain that someone listed them as a reference and I’m met with the response, “Who? Oh yeah, but wow, I haven’t worked with them or even spoken to them in years.” If you’re not sure if it’s been too long, call and ask them again. When you are searching for a new position, it’s important to network with as many people as you can, and this is a perfect excuse to reach out to people.

While you have them on the phone, be sure to talk about the type of job you are looking for, and ask if they might know of anyplace looking for someone with experience like yours. The answer to every unasked question is always no, so ask. If they say no, they don’t know any place looking, then you’re right where you are now as if you didn’t ask. However by asking you are giving them a chance to say Yes! But you won’t get that referral unless you ask.

Then you need to be bold, and ask them a tough question.

You: Joe, I’m hoping I can ask you a difficult question.

Joe (your potential reference): “Sure, go ahead.

You:And please be completely honest with me, I promise, no matter what you say you won’t hurt my feelings, but it’s important that I know the answer to this. If someone were to call you and ask you what you felt my greatest weakness is, what would you tell them?”

It’s critical you hold true to your promise and not get upset with them, no matter what they say, and don’t get defensive about it. Just be appreciative of their honesty and let them know you will take note of it.

Now here’s the important part, if they said anything that you feel would hurt your chances of getting a job, DON’T USE THEM AS A REFERENCE! You don’t need to tell them you’re not using them, just don’t give out their name, pick someone else.

The greatest weakness question is an extremely common reference checking question, so you need to know what people are saying about you. If they give you a positive response, such as “Well I’ll just tell them I can’t think of any“, then you know you’re safe. Or if they give a very minor issue, or an issue that you solved, such as “When they first started here there was an issue leaving work right at 5pm, but that was because of night school. Since that’s over, that wouldn’t be a problem for you” then you’re safe to use them.

Next you need to move the conversation on to your strengths, “Was there anything you feel I should focus on promoting? A specific skill, or a trait perhaps that you feel makes me valuable to an employer? And I don’t mean to be fishing for compliments here, I just want to be sure I’m putting my emphasis where it should be.” Let them talk, and take some notes. While it’s important to know this information, that’s only partly why you are asking for this information.

Asking for your strengths is also a set up question. Now that they just identified what they like about you, now hit them up for the online recommendation! “You know what would really help me? Would mind doing me a huge favor by jotting that down in a sentence or two and place it in a recommendation for me in

Testimonials inspire confidence and trust; it’s been studied and proven. It’s important to let people know that others have had good experiences with you. It’s a very powerful and helpful tool that has worked well for me, and I recommend you use it too.

Lastly, just prior to someone calling them to get the reference, prepare them. Call them to let them know the call will be coming and who will be calling. Reverse the “be a great reference” process: Send them the resume you sent the company, send the job description, and fill them in on how the interview went so they can talk about what you want them to talk about. The more prepared they are, the more effective they can be for you.

By taking these extra steps you will ensure that you are getting the maximum effectiveness from your references. While doing so, you are also demonstrating to your references the organized approach you take to your job search which they can learn from for their own searches. This will improve your credibility even further with them. That will make them more likely to come to you when they need help, which will allow you to strengthen the network further by helping them, and around and around it goes. Be careful of bad references, giving and receiving, but whenever you have the chance to take part in a positive reference experience, prepare, and make the most of the opportunity!

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