The Why's and What For's of Employment References

One of these days you're going to receive a telephone call from a company manager who's considering hiring one of your lab mates. Surprised? Surely they want to talk to the boss and not to you, right?

In fact, they may want to talk to both you and the boss, and several other people besides. An ever-increasing number of employers believe that good peer relationships are critical to successful employment within their organizations. So companies seeking to evaluate talent are increasingly turning to peers, in addition to bosses, for judgments about prospective employees. If someone calls you and asks for an opinion about your bench mate, what will you tell them?

The goal, as with so many aspects of the search for a new employee, is to clarify the fit.

Far more relevant to your own future -- assuming you intend to seek a job in industry -- is that one of these days your peers, your boss, and your senior colleagues may start getting reference calls asking about you. How you fare will be determined, in part, by what they say. That's something you can't control directly, but it is something you can influence. The best way to increase the odds that the reference-checking process will turn out well is to coach the people who will be providing those references.

L.I.A.R. letters

Notice that I didn't say anything about letters of reference. In industry, employers don't pay much attention to opinions written down on paper. We recruiters refer to letters of reference as "L.I.A.R." letters. The acronym stands for "Letters of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Reference," and the double meaning is intentional. Typically, reference letters are so full of inaccuracies that they are essentially worthless. Many letter writers, when a reference is requested, couch their concerns in such flowery language that the meaning becomes confused. Even the worst lab employee can usually avoid getting negative recommendation letters because letter writers have gotten good at saying nothing.

One day a number of years ago I read what seemed like a positive reference letter for a molecular biologist, written by his principal investigator. After a paragraph of glowing detail about this fellow's abilities in molecular lab techniques, his boss closed by saying that "John was a continual influence on all those around him." I put the letter down assuming that John was a great teacher of those skills he had mastered to the junior members of the lab. I placed him with a client.

When it turned out to be a poor fit, we called the professor who had recommended him. That letter was written, he said, as "ammunition to help find John a job." Why? He wanted to get rid of him. He was indeed an influence on those around him; he was a terrible, negative influence, in the old job and in the new.

Although reference letters are widely considered useless, verbal references are essential. Whenever we -- hiring managers or recruiters -- want an honest opinion about a potential employee, we pick up the telephone.

A phone call has two advantages. First, it's interactive. We can ask specific questions then follow up, digging out the answers to questions we're interested in. Second, people can speak more freely on the telephone because there is no paper trail.

What employers need to know

Here's something you might not know about references: Usually they are not thumbs-up or thumbs-down affairs. The goal, as with so many aspects of the search for a new employee, is to clarify the fit.

I've done six or seven reference calls this week in my work as a recruiter. Some weeks I make a dozen or more. I know what I'm looking for, yet it is sometimes difficult to dig it out. Often, the referee I'm conversing with goes on and on about the candidate's positive qualities. Unless it includes a red flag, that's not very useful. Context is critical in a reference check. At this level, general excellence is assumed. Employers want to know about strengths and weaknesses that are relevant to a specific job.

An employer (or recruiter) has to tick off four items in every reference-check call. Job candidates can prepare their referees for at least the first two. Below, I'll make some suggestions about how to do that.

TORC: Getting You to Spill the Beans

One consultant is known for recommending the "Threat Of a Reference Check" to get candidates to confess to all their sins. Bradford Smart writes about this in his book The Smart Interviewer. Smart argues that if you want to learn the candid facts about a candidate's situation, you should threaten to call those references. "John, what was your boss's name at the U of A?" Or, "As you know, we're going to conduct a very thorough reference check. What would Dr. Smith at the U of A have to say about your performance in that job?" And then, "Who were your co-workers in that team working for Smith at the U of A?" Faced with the possibility that those people will be interviewed, applicants tend to be much more honest about those situations and their performance.

-Strengths. In a good reference-check call, the caller will describe the position and the work that goes on in that environment. The referee should listen closely so that she or he can provide specific, relevant judgments and examples from past experience.

If you're expecting a prospective employer to call your boss or one of your peers, make sure he or she knows something about the job you are being considered for. Tell the referee -- your boss or colleague -- what you think your strengths are in the context of the position. If you have a sense for which of your good qualities the caller is likely to ask about, pass that information along to the prospective referee. Remind him or her about experiences you've had where those qualities were on display.

-Weaknesses. In most reference calls I participate in, the referee is unprepared to speak about weaknesses. Here's an opportunity for you to do some coaching. We all have weaknesses; hopefully, the ones your referee chooses to share will be of the less-damaging sort. "Joe doesn't have much of a work ethic" will not help you land the job.

What you want is for your referee to mention weaknesses the employer or recruiter already knows about. You want those weaknesses to be job-related and not personal. If it's a cell-culture position, maybe you don't have experience with CHO cells. That's a legitimate weakness for your referee to point to (while quickly adding that you're fast at learning new technologies).

So it's a good idea to prep your potential referees with a few ways you (and the potential employer) know you're not a perfect fit. You'll be giving your referees implicit permission to discuss these relatively harmless negatives, making it less likely that they'll dig deeper and come up with something more harmful.

-Interpersonal style. Few scientists work completely alone; even the loneliest scientist on an Antarctic ice shelf deals with other scientists often, if only by satellite phone. That's why employers always ask about work style and interpersonal style. They need to know how you direct your energies at work, how you get things done, how effectively you interact with people who have working styles different from yours. In industry, the ability to work well within a team is one of the most essential and stringent requirements. So it's one of the most important things for a reference seeker to evaluate.

-Red Flags. Many reference calls are simple exercises because the interviewer already knows (or thinks she knows) what a candidate is good at and can make an educated guess about their weaknesses. We expect to hear what we already think we know.

But we don't stop there; the real goal of a reference call is to uncover something no one suspected. It's easy to learn something unexpected and good, but what we're really keeping an ear open for are unexpected and important negatives. I call these red flags.

Do you have a poor relationship with your adviser? That's the classic red flag, and often it can be explained to an employer's satisfaction. But you need to be the one to explain it. So make sure they know about this already before they start calling around. Tell the hiring manager why the two of you don't get on well and what you've learned from the experience. It's far better to have some control over this red flag than to allow it to be sprung upon the reference checker like a skeleton out of a closet. No surprises.

A wider world of references

In applying for a job, you'll be asked for the names and contact information of people you want them to call -- who will put you in the best possible light. But the prospective employer has no obligation to stop there. Those referees will be asked, "Whom else do you think I should talk with?" This adds an element of uncertainty and makes the process harder to control. But there's something you can do to minimize this risk, to keep those "red flags" from waving: Give your references the names (and contact information) of a few other references they can suggest.

These, too, should be people who are likely to express only positive opinions of your competence, character, and work ethic. You'll be making the lives of your primary referees easier while reducing the odds that the process will turn against you.

Reference calls add an element of uncertainty to the job-seeking process, but by working behind the scenes, you can improve the odds that things will turn out in your favor.

Photo (top): CREDIT: anoldent on Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license

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