Considering Points of Reference

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sharon Palmeter often can tell whether a job candidate has stayed in touch with her references -- or not.

The "not" can raise red flags or even kill the candidate's prospects, said Palmeter, vice president of recruiting for federal contractor Apptis in Chantilly.

For instance, she points out, it makes a bad impression at a critical moment if you don't know where your reference works. "If the phone number's not correct or the person never calls you back, that is never a good sign," she said.

Managing your references is a crucial but often overlooked part of the job hunt. Almost all organizations do some kind of reference checks, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, including credit checks, background checks and calls to former supervisors you may not have mentioned.

Anyone who knows your professional talents and abilities can be a reference -- whether they're from a class, a nonprofit board of directors, an event you organized or a contract job. Consider what your key skills are and find someone who can attest to them, said Gisele Cloutier, assistant director of career management education for American University's business school and a former outplacement counselor.

Clients can be great references, especially if your job involves marketing, sales or outreach. Co-workers also make good references, but friends serve well only if you have professional ties. Cloutier said one of her long-time references was a peer when she was in the executive search field, then became her boss, and "over the years we've stayed friends."

If you're using a university professor as a reference and it has been more than a year since your last class together, make a refresher call or send an e-mail mentioning the research paper you wrote or the extra credit project you completed, said Cloutier, who teaches career management classes to MBA students.

It's smart to give different references for different jobs, especially if they require distinct talents and skills, said Palmeter, whose firm hired 600 people last year. One-third of the new hires came from in-house referrals -- so a friend or colleague inside may be a valuable addition to your list.

Before you ask someone for a reference, conduct some due diligence on what they think of you and your work.

"Ask them -- what would you say about me if I gave you as a reference?" suggested Marshall Brown, an executive and career coach in Washington. Find out how they'll answer the tough questions -- your mistakes and weaknesses -- and refresh their memory on what steps you took to overcome those shortcomings. If you spent a year in speech and communications classes to cure your fear of public speaking, remind them of that -- and how you now serve on public panels and workshops.

You could also hire a reference-check service that for $75 to $100 will unearth what people will say about you. This can turn up some surprises, such as the ex-boss who remembers you as always late or the manager who doesn't want your career to climb while hers stagnates.

Remember to check your references and image online, on your Facebook and LinkedIn pages and also through a Google search of yourself. More than one-fifth of hiring managers say they research candidates online, and they sometimes find inappropriate or potentially illegal activities, according to a CareerBuilder.com survey. This led one-third of the managers who checked to rule out those people.

Although you want your image to be timely and fresh, Palmeter said it's fine to include as references people you worked with five or six years ago. She likes to check references going back that far to see consistency of performance. Be sure to update your former co-workers on your career progress.

Before you hand over a contact list to a recruiter or hiring manager, you may want to coach your references by telling them about the job and the talents your would-be employer seeks. Palmeter suggests briefing references on what you told the interviewer about your strengths and weaknesses.

"Sometimes the things they say on the fly can really give a bad impression," she warned.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company