When I have asked and when I do ask for a reference, my hands still get clammy and my stomach becomes taut – “What if the person I am asking for a reference says no? What if they were just paying me lip service on my performance? What if I don’t get the job because of it?”.
I think you should feel that way about asking for a reference because that means that you care about the result – whether good or bad – to help you grow.
It should not be a guarantee.
But instead we’ve shifted over to the “How dare you say that about me? And, I’m going to sue!”. For what, because someone had an opinion on your performance? Your performance?
Keep in mind – I only mean this in the strictest regards of your actual performance, if you did a bad job and goofed off all day long – that is on you – not the legal system – that was your choice to act that way and if anything, you should not be using them as a reference. In the case where you were let go, be honest with yourself, would a reference from there really help? What can you show to your new employer that you really need to work on this time around?
In terms of overall references, here is where I see us going wrong today…
You can have a Bad Reference
It should be okay to give someone a reference of how they actually performed at their job – “yes they didn’t know what they were doing, but I admired them for coming in every day and trying” – if anything, that level of honesty would encourage me to seek out that person and talk to them. We don’t get everything right the first time so why would we expect to have a perfectly unblemished record of employment as well? The failures count just as much as the successes.
The Questions are always the same
Do you know this person?
How long did they work with you?
Did they hold this position?
Did they take a coffee break every day at 9:15am?
The top 3 are legitimate questions that I get asked for when a reference has been requested. Sometimes this is all I get asked and they are completely inane. They tell you nothing. Here are my answers for this “glowing” reference – “Yes, 2 years, Yes, Don’t know”. And that’s your reference? That tells you nothing about the person or what I am getting into.
I have held onto the letters of reference I have asked for and received from past employers because a) they sometimes make me feel good on a bad day and b) they explain what I did – what contributions I made and where I excelled.
This is probably the biggest problem today, employer calls for a reference, gets a bad reference on the new prospective employee and from there, arbitrarily kicks them to the curb? Why? Why not call your new prospective employee back and ask them why? Did something go wrong? Does this person not like you? Give them a chance to explain their side of the story – you might be impressed. I worked with someone who had her role change in the last year of her employment and failed at it, it was not her thing, but should that get her a zero on a reference for all her previous years experience leading up to that? I don’t think so.
The Best Reference I ever received
You might be thinking this is all a bunch of random unicorns and rainbows but it’s not. Years ago, I interviewed for a job that I desperately wanted and pulled out all the stops. I had my references lined up and one of them gave a very frank reference for me – “Great developer, hard working, very persistent, does not like process and being hampered down by it, he will get frustrated” – and it’s true… it is 125% true and still is to this day. And at first I was taken aback – “well there goes that” – but the company appreciated the honesty in the reference and my frustration aligned with their internal processes so we were a great match.
Make a reference mean something, if you want share it with the person before you give it – great – but make it worthwhile, don’t make it a three word answer. There could be more paperwork involved in giving a real reference that helps someone, whether good or bad, to move forward in their career. And for better or worst, they think you are the one to help them out – so help them out and make it mean something.