‘Are you sure that you want to use your ex-boss as a referee?’

Bound by confidentiality, I wasn’t able to reveal to my client that her boss thought poorly of her and was glad that her role had been made redundant. All I could do was hint that this was NOT a good idea.

It didn’t work. My client ‘Lu’ was insistent that her boss would say good things about her and used her name in the four or so jobs she was then interviewed for. Lu was a real natural at interviews and I expected her to pick up a job quite quickly but she was unsuccessful in all of them. Finally, a recruiter told her bluntly that her former boss was ‘stabbing her in the back’ and destroying her chances.

This remains my most vivid memory of how important it is to manage your referees properly. Yet, a 2018 article by Northeastern University in the US stated that many job seekers regard references as an afterthought even though, ‘Eight in 10 HR executives report  consistently contacting employee references and 73 percent of employers indicate that the references had a significant impact on their decision to hire.’

 So here goes with 3 tips so you don’t fall at the last hurdle.

Tip 1: Choose carefully

The general advice is to have five or six referees in your repertoire, but offer two or three, matched carefully to each job.

Typically, you are expected to use your current boss (or most recent boss, if you have already left). Sometimes, this isn’t possible. You may not wish your current boss to be aware that you are planning to leave or you might think that she will not report favourably on you.  

In this instance, you need to find someone else senior to you who can comment in detail on your work. Or, select a boss from a previous position.

In some instances, key clients and associates are appropriate, as a back up to your boss. It’s not OK to use one from your personal life e.g. a pastor or sports coach, unless you’re straight out of school or have no work experience.

Tip 2: Seek explicit agreement from your referees

The best option is to set up a quick meeting with your referee. Show them exactly what you are laying claim to in your résumé, line by line.

Watch their body language for any signs of discomfort. Many people are not brave enough to tell you to your face that they don’t agree with your claims. They may nod and smile and then contradict you later when asked by the prospective employer. It is better to assess their real response here and respond accordingly e.g. by perhaps choosing a different referee.

Tip 3: Tackle awkward ‘referees’

There might be an occasion when a prospective employer contacts someone outside of your referee list and then confronts you with unfavourable feedback.

Don’t lose your cool. Think of something positive to say about the ‘referee’ and then offer a calm but persuasive rebuttal.  Something like this…’John and I did some strong work together on introducing LEAN techniques into the company. After that, we differed on the best way to get our team to follow through. I’m comfortable with the approach I was recommending.’

Then, provide a ‘countering’ referee from the same organisation who can back up your comments.

For further information on this topic – check out our blog with a further 7 tips!