When it comes to references, one of the biggest mistakes job candidates can make is to wait until they really need them to start gathering them, say the experts. "The time to build and cultivate good references is before you ever leave your current place of employment," says Jeff Shane, vice president of Allison & Taylor, Inc., a reference checking and employment verification firm. Even if it's too late for that, there are a number of steps you can take to make sure you're giving the best impression possible.
In the current unstable economy, it's essential to choose those references who can best speak to your work abilities and past successes on the job. Paul W. Barada, president of Barada Associates Inc., a pre-employment screening firm, frequently sees job seekers who list references with whom they've never actually worked. "What, for instance, can your golfing buddy know about your management style or job responsibilities?" he asks.
It's important to consider who would be an employer's ideal set of references. Usually, this is a current or former supervisor, peer or subordinate with whom you've worked in the last five to seven years, according to Barada.
"Make sure your reference is someone you trust and who is credible," says David Alexander, former SVP of Human Resources for WaMu/JP Morgan Chase. "Coworkers are fine, but supervisors and management above you are better."
Since ideal references aren't always available, you might need to expand your idea of who would serve as a good reference. Consider people who are no longer affiliated with the company at which you worked together. Maybe they have retired or moved on to a different position elsewhere. They are much more likely to be willing to talk, says Kelly Blokdijk, founder of TalentTalks, a Southern California-based career management company. "It might also be beneficial to explain to references that information provided is based on their direct experience [with you] rather than as a representative of a given company," she says.
Don't Forget to Check In
Another mistake job seekers often make is not checking in with their references each time they list them on an application. You don't want a reference to be caught off guard when he or she receives that all-important call. If you are planning on listing someone, send an email thanking him or her for agreeing to serve as a reference and include a copy of the job description. It couldn't hurt to refresh a reference's memory by including a list of your responsibilities and achievements from when you worked together. By providing the necessary information, your references will be much more prepared to take a call and to impress a potential employer.
"For finance pros applying for jobs outside the industry, make sure your references are able to highlight core skills that are portable to a different industry," says Alexander.
Don't Underestimate Their Value
A reference that distinguishes you from the pack can mean the difference between receiving an offer and not even being asked back for a second interview. After being laid off from an operations position at a leading Wall Street brokerage firm earlier this year, Lindsay Bland landed a similar position at another firm in only six weeks. She credits her references for giving her the edge over the other 30 candidates. "The only reason I got it [the position] was one of my references," says Bland. "I'm convinced of that." Even before she applied for the position, a supervisor at the company from which Bland was laid off called a contact and mentioned her name and that she would be a "good fit" for the company. This was the same supervisor Bland listed as a reference.
Generic-sounding reference letters won't help you land a job, says Alexander. "[They] are generally not worth much. They only serve as a verification of employment versus a reference." The more your references can talk to the specifics of your work and accomplishments, the better.
If Possible, Be Pro-Active
In today's tight economy, you'll want to be on good terms wherever you work -- no matter how long you plan to stay or what the circumstances are when you leave. "Prior to leaving, ask those with whom you think you have a good working relationship if they will provide you with a letter of recommendation," says Shane. "You can then give those copies to prospective new employers, which could eliminate the need for a follow-up phone call."
Once you make the move to another position, Shane recommends contacting your former supervisors periodically and updating them on your career and asking them to continue being a reference for you. "Thank them for their time and acknowledge them with a personal thank-you letter or email," he says. "This simple etiquette will be one of the best investments you can make."
-- Liz Garone
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