Are you spending all of your time looking for jobs and no time at all preparing your references to support your candidacy? It's a mistake many job seekers make. Another mistake? Forgetting that employers are likely to contact people who are not on your list. Using LinkedIn and other social media tools, it's relatively easy for employers to find people who worked with you and to inquire about your work ethic, competencies and skills.
Since you never know where your target employer may dial for a reference, how can you try to take control of the story he hears? What if you left your last job under difficult circumstances, or were fired? Can you protect yourself against a bad reference?
Unfortunately, you cannot control what someone will say about you, and if an employer researches references beyond the list you provide, you cannot prevent someone from sharing unflattering information. If you are lucky, you may benefit from a common company policy, which is to only allow employees to confirm when someone worked for the company and does not allow them to comment on your competency. If you're concerned about a bad reference, consider checking if the company where you had a bad experience has such a policy. (Although, not everyone abides by these rules, it may give you some peace of mind.)
The good news? There are things about your references you can positively influence. Especially if you know there are people out there with negative information to share, the onus is on you to identify people who can speak strongly and affirmatively about your ability to excel at the jobs you are targeting.
How can you secure a good reference?
1. Go on the offensive.
Ask people who knew you at your best for LinkedIn references. While most employers will dig deeper and actually contact references on the phone, if you have several flattering references on LinkedIn, it may help balance negative information the employer will find.
When you request written LinkedIn references, recognize that most people could use a little guidance about what to write. It's up to you to help steer your recommenders. Include specifics in your note to potential recommenders. For example:
"I am updating my LinkedIn profile, and I'd be honored if you would write a recommendation for me. The jobs I'm looking for now all require the following: customer service and communication skills, an ability to be self-directed and deadline-driven, and a track record of being able to be inquisitive and to pay attention to details. I hope you will be able to comment on any of those in your endorsement. Please take a look at my updated LinkedIn profile, and feel free to contact me if you'd like to talk more about what I've been doing lately."
2. Select strong recommenders.
Another way to seize some control of the reference process is to prepare to provide a list of references you'd like employers to contact. Select the people most likely to strongly support you. If possible, select strong communicators who will be able to persuade an employer that you are a good hire. Contact people on the phone and ask their permission to include them on your list. If someone hesitates, or seems to hedge, remove that name immediately and move on to the next person.
3. Prepare your references to support you.
When you expect a potential employer to contact your references, but sure to get in touch with those supporters. Send them an updated version of your resume and provide details about the job and information you learned in the interview; let them know the best topics to emphasize if they receive a call. For example, if every interviewer asked about your ability to negotiate with difficult clients, you'll want to be sure to ask your references to mention how you landed a contract after tough, drawn out talks with a big customer.
It's up to you to make sure your top recommenders are prepared to say exactly what the employer needs to hear; this is especially important if you know you have detractors. The better you prepare you references, the easier it will be for them to help overcome any objections someone else may raise.
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