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Optimize Your References

Recently I browsed some posts on a discussion forum related to biotechnology careers. Tempers were flaring. It seems that the discussion had gotten onto the subject of whether or not industry employers check references, and whether a few letters of reference or a performance appraisal will satisfy them. One of the contributors to the discussion had this to say:

"I don't believe that companies rely on references to make the decision to hire. It is more important to have strong technical credentials, and this is determined by an in-person interview. References have very little to do with this."

Although I agree that no one is going to hire you until they have convinced themselves you'll be able to do the job, this person is wrong to believe that companies don't use reference-checking as a part of the validation process. Even if you ace the interview, there will be a process afterward that has a great deal to do with whether or not you are hired. Many technical people overlook the importance of this process.

How Industry Gathers References

Even hiring managers sometimes look askance at references, because they are so easy to manipulate. And although most firms check references in one way or another, it's true that some 20% don't bother checking references at all. This is often due to an individual manager's belief that the process is "fixed" in the candidate's favor.

But in the last 2 years I have seen reference checks gathering steam. Examples of this phenomenon lie in a new book written for industry managers.

Edward Andler is a guru in the reference-checking business. His 40 years of experience are boiled down in The Complete Reference Checking Handbook. Andler describes how managers use the reference-check process to learn more about their candidates, not just to assist them in making the final selection. They like to find out what makes the prospective new hire tick--and learning more about how previous supervisors have motivated and inspired the applicant can help in getting the best performance from that person once they are on board.

Here are the three types of references that are used by employers who want to know more about you:

  • Phone reference--This is a contact by telephone with a former boss or colleague.
  • Written letters of reference--These are a holdover from the world of academia. They're still used in some companies but are generally followed up by phone.
  • Third-party reference checks--This refers to any outside agency that performs a variety of services ranging from light phone reference-checking all the way through to exhaustive searches of public records.

Reference Suggestions

If you are entering the job market, your references will be checked. Here are some ideas on improving your attractiveness to employers, distilled from Edward Andler's book, "The Complete Reference Checking Handbook:"

  • Choose your references before your interview. Find people who are knowledgeable about your abilities and performance. This means former managers, peers, subordinates, or clients. Identify a broad range of references. After you've interviewed and know more about the job responsibilities, then decide which ones to recommend.
  • Try to select people with good communication skills who can and will converse with someone about you. People who are hard to reach, unclear, or evasive may hurt your efforts.
  • Keep your references informed about new developments in your employment situation and always inform them of pending calls.
  • If you have had a poor relationship with an adviser or key co-worker--someone who is likely to be contacted by the prospective employer--you'll need to talk about this in the interview and defuse the issue before calls are made. By being honest and open, you may succeed in taking a potential negative and using it to add to your credibility. If you hide it, it will be discovered during the reference process.

Regardless of which type of reference check your prospective employer is using, you need to understand their goals for the process. These might include learning more about your work patterns (consistencies as well as inconsistencies), interpersonal relations, personal attributes (strengths and weaknesses), environments in which you are most (and least) effective--and of course to validate your professional competence in a given area.

Although all three types of reference checks can assist the company in reaching its goals, there are some things that make each unique and a few ways that you can optimize them for your particular situation.

Optimize Your References

Phone References: This is an easy one for most hiring managers, and that is why it is so often used in industry. Your prospective boss simply picks up the phone and makes contact with your adviser or other listed references. Human resource departments generally ask you for official permission to make such calls (you'll probably sign something on an application form that says it is OK for the company to check references). The key thing to remember here is that you need to make your references aware that they may receive a call about this matter, even those who have written a letter. Employers generally spend about 15 to 20 minutes on these calls. If there has been a previous written reference, then an effort will be made to expand on comments or concerns shown in that letter. If this call is made to a person who hasn't already provided input, the caller will make the usual inquiries about your strengths and weaknesses.

The biggest surprise may be when the caller asks, "Can you suggest other people whom I can call who know this person?" Yes--the reference calls may go beyond the three or four names you have provided with your application!

Here's what you should do about it:

  • Always let your references know the name and background of the person who will most likely call them. It is fair to ask the employer for this information. By the end of the interview day, you will generally know what the issues are going to be. It will help you to make sure your reference contacts know this as well. For example, "Talk a little about my skills in assay development. They have some concerns that I didn't have much bioanalytical work in my thesis project."
  • When the company asks for three references, give them four or five. If they ask for six, give them eight. Doing this will keep them from calling people who aren't on your list.
  • Remember to present a variety of reference types. A mentor or two, a couple of colleagues at your level, and even some references who may have worked at a lower level in the lab. Six is often a good mix: two higher ups, including your boss; two colleagues; and two support staff.

Written Letters of Reference: Although many managers request these, they are without much merit in the industrial life sciences unless they are followed up with additional information gleaned via phone calls. I suggest to my employer clients not to put reference-letter requests in their recruitment ads, as it is so easy to write a letter of reference for a marginal employee that makes him or her look good.

  • When employers ask for letters of reference, also provide the contact's phone number and e-mail address. If the letter is coming directly from the reference, remind that person to give the company their contact information for the prospective follow-up call, or provide that information yourself--with the referee's permission, of course.
  • Because of the focus on the team environment in industry, written letters that address your ability to work well with others and in a multidisciplinary environment are stronger. It doesn't hurt to have a letter or two from people you have interfaced with in this way.

Third-party references: Every company has a different policy on whether or not they use outside references, because the quality of outside references varies a great deal. Generally, it will be the headhunter who contacted you in the first place who will check your references; any recruiter who has earned your future employer's trust is not going to provide references that are manipulated. It could also be another type of third party who makes these calls: a "background check" agency. But even when the company has these references in their hands, they often do some follow-up of their own. In particular, hiring managers believe that outside third-party references don't provide enough detail about technical matters.

  • It is logical and necessary for the recruiter to check your references in advance of presenting your credentials to the employer. (After all, his or her reputation rides on whether you are a quality referral.)
  • But sometimes these references are used as additional contacts for the search. A friend you use as a reference may end up getting a call about the same job. To avoid this, tell the headhunter that you are passing on these names
  • solely and exclusively for use as your references.

In Closing ...

In many pharmaceutical and biotech companies, managers have well-developed antennae for the hiring process. They can spot a good hire in a short period of time. These folks hire by a combination of gut feeling and instinct.

The best managers, however, combine that instinct with outside information gathered through the reference-checking process. If you are on the industry job market, I can assure you that you will be "referenced" in the near future. Now is the time to start gathering people who will be on your side throughout the process. A good reference, someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about you, is one of the most powerful advantages that you have in your job search. Cultivate and maintain those contacts!

Further Reading:

Edward C. Andler, The Complete Reference Checking Handbook (Amacom, New York City, 2003)

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