Say a Good Word

How to really work your references

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At the end of many résumés there is a line that reads “References furnished upon request.” But how confident are you that if called on, your references would offer a strong testimony to match your written profile? Job seekers make several unnecessary mistakes when offering reference contacts to employers, suggests Gayle Laakmann McDowell, founder and CEO of the tech job site CareerCup.com and author of The Google Résumé: How to Prepare for a Career and Land a Job at Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Any Top Tech Company (Wiley; $22.95).

One of the biggest missteps is selecting references solely on their position and job title. “Many job seekers pick people who are high up in the company, or who have impressive-sounding titles,” says Laakmann McDowell. “These titles are rarely as impressive as from the outside. And when your reference can’t speak to your impact on the firm, the prospective company may assume you had no impact at all.”

Additionally, be cautious about not listing your immediate supervisor as a reference. While there can be benefits to listing a different person, some companies may think you’re trying to hide something and raise a red flag. If you have a good reason for not choosing your supervisor (such as you’re currently working at the company), say so. But otherwise, as long as your supervisor likes you, use him or her.

A bit of reference coaching can clear up many concerns. Laakmann McDowell offers several points to help you guide the discussion in your favor.

Make an assessment of potential references. Although you may have had a positive working relationship with a supervisor, it doesn’t mean that the person will be the best reference in helping you secure the position. Consider the following: Will he/she be an effective communicator? Does he/she communicate positively? How familiar is he/she with the projects on which you’ve worked? Has he/she been demoted or reassigned since your departure?

Ask permission. Before you list a reference, it’s important to ask permission. The call is not only a courtesy, it’s an opportunity to get the most current information on your reference, discuss the position for which you are applying, and refresh their memory on your skills and accomplishments.

Suggest areas to emphasize. While Laakmann McDowell notes that you can’t ask references to embellish the truth, you can ask them to focus on particular areas of your expertise or strengths. “If you want to make sure that the caller knows that you’re a strong negotiator,” she writes, “you can mention this to your contact.”

Discuss your weaknesses.
“You can and should talk to your references about how to discuss your weaknesses,” Laakmann McDowell explains. “A good way to approach the conversation is saying something like, ‘I really appreciate your offering to serve as a reference. I thought this would be a good time to get some additional perspective on my strengths and weaknesses, and how you think I could be a more valuable contributor. I’m sure the company I’m applying to will ask you similar questions, but I’d really value your input as well.’ As they discuss your weaknesses, admit them and explain how you’re trying to work on them. This will show maturity and humility—and will gently feed the reference ways to talk about you.”

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