Knowledge & Insight

The importance of maintaining good references

Mon 17 July 2017

We recently published an article offering HR departments and client companies some expert insight into the best ways to obtain candidate references. Yet we receive so many enquiries from candidates, especially those who haven't changed roles for a while, that we realised an article focussed on the candidate's perspective might help to shed some light on this rather veiled part of the recruitment process.

Referencing helps to validate accomplishments

The purpose of a reference is to validate your stated accomplishments and academic performance, and to provide insight into your personal character and attitude. This is all very important information for any potential new employer, yet in today's increasingly litigious commercial world, many companies have chosen to opt out of providing their staff with references, while others will permit only brief, factual information to be released. So even if your performance in your last role has been absolutely stellar, you shouldn't rely on a reference to illustrate this fact - make sure you communicate your performance clearly in your CV and at interview.

How many references do I need?

The number of references an employer requests will vary across industry sectors and in line with the seniority of the position. As a general rule of thumb, you should expect to provide 2-3 professional references, and in industries where your personal character is of significant importance, perhaps 1-2 personal references. So it's good practice to have reference contact details to hand should you need them.

What constitutes a professional and personal reference?

A professional reference will usually be your line manager, or someone who can attest to your professional competence and the quality of your work. If you have a good working relationship with your line manager and they are well-placed to fully assess your true skills and accomplishments, then use them as a reference. A line manager is always a favoured reference, and any reluctance or failure to document direct line managers is usually a 'red flag' to an employer, suggesting issues with past performance.

References from peers are becoming more common as they often provide greater insight into how you work, and whether you'd be a good fit for the role. Also, as peers are less constrained by company policy, their answers can often provide greater insight into your abilities.

A personal reference may be requested if your potential employer wishes to learn about your personal character. Personal references of this nature are becoming more widespread across the hospitality and retail sectors, where the ability to handle situations diplomatically is required, and also in roles where a certain degree of morality and transparency are deemed important characteristics. Personal or character references may also be requested if you have a long career history with one company, and therefore lack numerous professional references. It's therefore a good idea to have a personal reference to hand - someone who can provide insight into your personal qualities and attributes.

I am not actively looking for work - what references should be included?

If you're not actively seeking a new role, or if you have been approached by a head-hunter, then it's advisable not to disclose details of direct line managers at this point. If a head-hunter requires a professional reference at an early stage in the recruitment process then it's best to provide details of a line manager or peer from a previous role.

You should also avoid naming references on your CV. Employers and recruiters will normally request references at the end of the recruitment process or when they're making you a job offer. If you're asked for references prior to this point, question how they will be used, and be extremely selective in the ones that you provide.

What qualities should I look for in my referees?

Providing references is the one part of the recruitment process you can actually control, and if done correctly, it should provide your potential employer with no reason to reconsider their offer. So although referencing may be the final stage in the recruitment process, it is by no means a formality, which means you should choose your referees carefully.

Firstly, only use people who have given their permission for you do so. Secondly, avoid using people with whom you've lost touch. It will do nothing for your credibility if a referee tells your potential employer that they hadn't realised they were your reference, or that it has been so long since you worked for them that  their memory of your skills and accomplishments is somewhat hazy.

So whom do you choose as your references? Primarily, they should be selected for their ability to assess your accomplishments and achievements in previous roles. Don't simply pick people you think you have the best 'chemistry' with, or that you have the most in common with. Whilst these references can be valid, they can also be quite superficial in their ability to provide a statement of real substance. Ideally, reference choice should be based on projects or areas of your job in which you have performed well, perhaps delivering set targets, or based on areas where management and leadership skills can be evidenced. References should also be relatively up to date, certainly within 1-2 years of working together. Just as your skills and accomplishments change with time, so should your references. Upgrade and improve.

Referencing coaching

There is nothing wrong with coaching your references to help them provide an accurate assessment of you. Don't assume that references will always be undertaken by HR departments looking to ask standard questions and tick boxes. In many cases, especially with senior management roles and technical or academic positions, line managers will want to take ownership of referencing in order to ask specific questions. This is certainly more common in SMEs or smaller privately owned businesses that don't have HR departments, and in these instances, leaving your referees to second guess what skills the employer might be looking for could significantly jeopardise your chances. If you know the role requirements, tell your referees in advance which of your assets are most relevant so they can "sell" you to your potential employer.

Keep in regular contact

As mentioned earlier, in a world of increasing litigation, and one in which employers are no longer bound by law to provide references, selecting and maintaining your references should be of the highest priority.

So given the trouble you have gone through to prepare and coach your referees, it goes without saying that keeping in regular contact with them is a fairly basic requirement. Make sure they are firmly on your Christmas card list, plus a phone call twice yearly to catch up wouldn't go amiss.

In Summary:

  • Have a minimum of two professional referees plus one personal character reference on hand.
  • Avoid naming references on your CV.
  • Ensure your references are carefully selected for their ability to assess your accomplishments and skills within a defined 1-2 year timeframe. Continually look to upgrade your references to reflect new skills and accomplishments.
  • Referencing coaching - ensure that your references are aware that they will be contacted, and what areas of your skills are most appropriate to the role you're seeking.
  • Keep in touch with your references - let them know they are appreciated.
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