When Someone Asks You for a Reference

by Rebecca Knight

A colleague opens up to you and says that he’s interviewing for a new job. He asks you to be his reference. Should you say yes? And if you do, what can you say to a potential new employer to best convey the applicant’s skills and expertise?

What the Experts Say

Providing a reference for a worthy employee is not only kind, it’s a smart career move. It’s “good professional karma to pay it forward,” says Jodi Glickman, the speaker, author, and founder of the communication consulting firm, Great on the Job. “Most people who are successful in their careers had help along the way,” she says. “And they’re happy to help someone else coming up.” Priscilla Claman, the president of Career Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm and a contributor to the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job, agrees: “If you’ve got someone who’s worked hard for you, and you can’t promote him or he’s moving to Minneapolis, you should try to support him however you can.” Here’s how to handle a reference request—and what to actually say (or write) to a recruiter.

Decide whether you want to do it

The first step, of course, is determining whether you’ll give the reference. If the person was a star performer and dedicated colleague, then the answer may be obvious. But if his track record was spotty or worse, be careful. “You’re putting your reputation on the line,” Glickman says. “If you refer someone, and he doesn’t perform, you look bad.” You should also consider whether your company allows you to be a reference. Claman says that many companies forbid employees from giving job references to current or former colleagues, stipulating that reference checks go through HR. While this rule is perhaps the “most violated policy in the panoply of HR policies,” it’s smart to know what you are allowed and not allowed to do.

Be honest

Whatever you decide, be truthful with your colleague about what you’re willing to do and say. If you feel you really can’t serve as a reference, say so, says Glickman. She recommends declining this way. “Say, ‘I am not going to be able to give you a strong enough recommendation. You need someone who can really sing your praises.’” If your appraisal of the candidate’s abilities is mixed, Claman advises having a “conversation [with the applicant] about what exactly you might say” to a reference checker. Be candid, but diplomatic about the particulars. “Say, ‘I could give you a reference about how well you deal with customers, but I can’t give you a reference that includes your ability to stick to a budget.”

Prepare

When you do agree to give a reference, ask the candidate for assistance. “If you don’t have enough information to speak off-the-cuff, or you worked with the person a long time ago, request an up-to-date résumé and then have her refresh your memory on her top accomplishments at your organization,” says Glickman. Savvy, smart candidates provide three references—often a mixture of former and current bosses, coworkers, and subordinates—that can speak to their different strengths. So ask the candidate what she’d like you to highlight, says Claman. Is it her rapport with customers? Her project management skills? Her technical chops? Also request information about the role she’s being considered for and why she wants the job. “Ask her, ‘Why is this the right next job for you?’”

If you’ve been asked for a written recommendation, which is still a prominent feature in some professions, such as teaching, as well as in graduate school applications, suggest that your colleague prepare a draft letter with all of the relevant information that you can then “edit as you see fit,” says Claman.

Use specific examples

Whether it’s a written recommendation or a telephone conversation, hiring managers are often interested in two key aspects of a candidate’s on-the-job performance. The first is behavioral, says Glickman. They want to know how the candidate relates to other colleagues, which is basically “a character reference.” The second aspect concerns his technical skills and expertise. “They want to know how he drove revenue by X%, or improved sales by X margin,” she says. In both cases, “be as specific as you can about the contributions” the candidate made to your organization, says Claman.

If the candidate is being considered for a job in which he doesn’t have direct experience, it can be tricky to come up with the right anecdotes. Describe the time when he picked up a new professional responsibility and what he achieved; talk about how he spearheaded a cross-functional project and the result he produced. The goal is for the hiring manager to infer competence. “Talk about specific and special circumstances—don’t be generic,” Claman says.

Be positive

“The level of enthusiasm you bring to the conversation and the superlatives you use to describe the candidate” should convey your opinion of the applicant’s abilities, says Glickman. “The highest praise you can give [in a reference check] is saying something like, ‘I would hire this person in a heartbeat. This is a person I want on my team.’” Sometimes reference checkers ask about a candidate’s weaknesses or press you to rank the candidate based on other employees. But you shouldn’t go there, says Claman. “Never give a negative reference—it’s far too fraught.” Trying to be funny or tongue-and-cheek is also ill advised. “Be careful about making a joke,” says Claman. “Things can so easily get blown out of proportion. Stick to the facts.”

Follow up

Many applicants are only vaguely aware of when and if their references are being checked and so it’s a thoughtful gesture to “let the candidate know you spoke to the hiring manager,” says Claman. Jobseekers are often hungry for information about their fate in the selection process and the very fact that you got a call “gives them a better sense of what’s going on and lets them know they’re a more serious candidate.” You needn’t provide a “blow-by-blow” of what was discussed, but if you are so inclined, candidates often appreciate it. “The candidate is responsible for letting you know if he got the job,” adds Glickman. But it doesn’t hurt to remind him of this. “Say, ‘Keep me posted.’ And then hope he does.”

Principles to Remember

Do

  • Be honest about what you are and are not willing to say to the recruiter
  • Ask the candidate to refresh your memory about his top accomplishments and contributions if you haven’t worked together in awhile
  • Convey enthusiasm about your colleague and her ability to do the job well

Don’t

  • Agree to provide a reference for someone you don’t believe in—remember: your reputation is on the line
  • Be vague—offer specific examples of the candidate’s abilities and strengths
  • Feel like you have to provide the candidate with a blow-by-blow account of what you discussed with the recruiter, but following up is a kind gesture

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.  Her work has been published in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Financial Times.

 

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