How to Get the Best Possible Recommendation from a Job Reference

by Marlo Lyons

Companies usually call your references when you’re a finalist for a role. But you may not be the only finalist, and the reference check could determine whether you get the job.

When a hiring manager calls a reference, they’re looking to gain deeper insight into your strengths, development areas, work style, and whether you’d fit into the company culture and team you’re trying to join. Here are three steps to ensure you pick the right references and that they’re prepared to discuss why you’re the perfect person for the job.

Step 1: Choose the Right References

Whether you pick your former manager who can describe your work in detail; colleagues from other departments who can speak to your ability to work across a global, matrixed organization; or external clients who can attest to your ability to influence without authority, the most important thing to consider when choosing whom to list as a reference is who can be the most enthusiastic about you as a candidate. Enthusiasm matters as much as what they say about you (if not more).

Hesitation can sink your chances of closing the job. When you ask someone to be a reference, ask if they can be an enthusiastic reference. If you hear any hesitation, don’t list that person. When I was hiring for a role and had two stellar candidates, I called two references for each. The references for one candidate were clearly more enthusiastic and swayed me to hire that person.

Step 2: Prepare Your References

This is your opportunity to prepare your references to focus on the right areas to help you secure the job. At a minimum, you should make sure your references know two things.

First, provide them with the job title and description. Second, they should know what information you want them to convey to the hiring manager. Is there anything you were unable to or forgot to mention during your interview that would be helpful for them to know, for example that you’re comfortable working in an ambiguous environment, that you’re an adaptive learner, or that you’re good at digging deep to understand a problem before offering solutions?

Be sure to provide examples for whatever information you want your reference to incorporate into their dialogue. If you’re not sure what to include, consider the following questions:

  1. What skill set is critical for the role, and which of your specific skills transfer directly to the role you’re applying to?
  2. Which qualities make you a great candidate for the role? Your ability to align stakeholders or to think strategically and execute? That you remain calm under intense deadlines?
  3. Which unique qualities make you stand out among the other possible candidates? Do you bring a unique perspective from your specific background that no one else could have that would be beneficial to the company?
  4. Are there any areas of improvement your reference should be able to address? Ensure they have a way to answer a question about your weaknesses or areas for development that you’ve worked hard to overcome. For example, if you had trouble handing off projects as the company scaled, provide your reference with examples of how you’ve since overcome that development area and can now quickly adapt to change.

Finally, if you were terminated from a role for performance and gave the recruiter or hiring manager an “alternate perspective” to explain your departure, make sure your reference is aware of it. Hiring managers and recruiters are searching for one thing that gives them pause. Don’t let it be that your reference couldn’t answer a question positively with conviction and enthusiasm.

Step 3: Manage Backdoor References

Many employers will seek “backdoor” references, meaning someone who has worked with you but isn’t on your reference list. Those types of references can be more genuine in their characterization of you — or less genuine if they had a direct conflict with you. Unfortunately, this happens, and if you left a company in an unprofessional way and the hiring manager knows someone who works there, it could sink your candidacy. Even if you’ve grown or learned from the experience since that time, your previous behavior may haunt you.

Look on LinkedIn to see if there are mutual connections who may not provide a positive backdoor reference. Perhaps a former colleague is now at the new company where you want to work. If you find mutual connections who know you and your work, determine if it’s worth contacting them to discuss their perception of you. Even if you find no connections, know the world is small, and people know people.

When a colleague of mine was in the final stages of interviewing for a new job, the hiring manager asked him delicately if he was still actively working at his current company — they had heard conflicting information as to whether he had departed the company. It was clear the hiring manager knew he was on a leave of absence, which he took to remain employed moments before being fired in a political shakeup. He answered that, while he was on payroll, he wasn’t working because he was on leave due to some short-term medical issues but planned to return shortly.

He could hear the skepticism and concern in the hiring manager’s voice and knew his candidacy was floundering. He offered to connect the hiring manager to someone who could confirm the leave wasn’t more nefarious. The hiring manager called me and dug in deep without asking exactly why he was on a leave of absence. Without revealing my colleague’s personal situation or mentioning he was going to be fired upon return due to no fault of his own, my enthusiasm and conviction for his work, character, and integrity were able to persuade the hiring manager to take the final leap and offer him the role. He is now in the C-suite.

. . .

The best way to ensure that everyone you work with has something positive to say about you is to build solid working relationships. In every job, find your champions who know your value. If you notice relationships suffering because you may have offended someone or didn’t show your best side, consider mending that relationship with a reflection meeting. Discuss your recollection of your work at the time and explain what you learned or could have done better, even if you believe the other person contributed to the strife. Showing self-awareness and growth may change the perspective of a future backdoor reference. Would you rather be right, or employed in your dream job? You can’t stop someone from saying something bad about you, but you can grow from every experience and show your growth in the next opportunity.

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