June 20, 2014 by Walter Cogan

It’s common knowledge that providing references are a part of every job application process regardless of whether you are using a recruiting firm, or applying directly to a company. As a professional recruiter, I ask for references from the candidates I represent as a normal part of the process I employ to provide the best candidates to my clients.

My primary concern initially is not whether the references provided to me are “excellent” references when I request them, but whether or not a candidate is willing to provide them at all.  Simply put…if I ask for three references from a candidate I am just beginning to work with as a part of my screening process— I am doing so as a litmus test. If a candidate tells me anything but “yes” when I ask them to provide me with professional references and they display any hesitation at all, that is a giant red flag for me of potential problems to come.

My job as a recruiter is to find the very best candidates in the marketplace at any given time that have the relevant experience my client needs for the position requirements. There is only so much information I can glean from a resume and one-on-one conversations with candidates. What I frequently need to know, and what my client needs to know, is what I cannot learn from the candidate at all. I want to know what my candidate is like to work with or for.

When I identify a candidate for a position I am recruiting on for a client, for the most part, I am already quite confident they will have the required skills my client is seeking. After a brief conversation, I can typically ascertain very quickly if I believe the candidate will have the personality type the hiring manager prefers and whether the candidate “really” wants the job or is just kicking the tires. What I can rarely learn from candidates however is what they are like in the workplace.

When checking references, I’m asking mostly about people skills. I frequently ask questions such as these:

  • Are they are good manager, leader, or a team player if not in a leadership position?
  • Do they develop good personal relationships with people or are they loners?
  • How do they react to stressful situations?
  • Are they collaborative?
  • Are they the type of person you would invite into your home and introduce to your family?
  • Would you go out after work and have a beer or dinner with them?
  • Can you give me an example of how they have helped other people succeed?

Skills and experience are not the most important predictor of whether a candidate can be effective in a job. What type of a human being they are is equally important. You can be the most talented engineer, rocket scientist or salesperson on planet, but if your people skills leave much to be desired, you will never realize your full potential, and that’s something I need to know in order to bring the best talent to the table for my clients.

So what are the rules-of-thumb when providing references to a recruiter or potential employer? First off – provide them. If you are reluctant, you may be perceived as being someone that has something to hide and that will never be good for your career. Next—provide references that you are 100% confident will always speak very highly of you and who can vouch not just for your integrity but also for what type of a person you are. Lastly—always get permission from your references before giving out their name and contact information and alert them prior to receiving any calls. No one wants to be surprised by a reference call.

What type of references should you provide? The best references are always people that you reported to in the workplace. Short of that, people that you have worked with or provided services to are excellent as well as they can vouch for not just your skills but what type of a person you are as well. Lastly – provide as many as you can. Why provide just two or three when 5 or more may be available? I personally can provide at least 15 people that can vouch for my skills and experience and tell you what type of a person I am. Perhaps more.

Strong references can make or break your career. The more people that can tell a potential employer how lucky they would be to have you on their team, the better your chances will be of advancing your career. If you are good at what you do and have the people skills employers are looking for, you should be cultivating references all along your career path.  Think of them as rare coins as they will always bring significant value to you long-term career success.

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