Don’t let your referees wreck your job applications

Your referees can make or break your next job application. And they wreck applications more often than you might think.

Before looking at how to avoid this, and how to choose your referees, here’s a couple of precautionary anecdotes. One’s nearly 30 years’ old and the other’s from the last couple of years.

Shortly after the introduction of Tomorrow’s Schools, a retiring principal advised the newly-appointed school board how to choose his replacement. “Ask each applicant to select three referees and give you their contact details”, he said. “Tell the applicants you’ll be sending the referees some questions and asking for written replies that will be confidential to the board”.

The board followed his advice, got 13 applicants and rejected 9 of them straight off on the basis of their referee reports, one of which began “It would be a brave Board of Trustees who would appoint XYZ as a principal…”.

In the second anecdote, the applicant used a referee from his most-recent job in the knowledge that the employer had valued his work performance, as had all his former employers. What he hadn’t taken into account is that — during the course of this employment — he’d suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, which had resulted in a poor attendance record.

When contacted, his former employer felt obliged to say that, while the applicant was a good worker, his attendance was just too unreliable. Consequently, the applicant failed to get hired for job after job. Fortunately, once he omitted this employer from his CV and his illness was well managed, he returned to the workforce without a problem.

Even when your referees don’t wreck your applications, they can sometimes undermine them. For example, executive recruitment agencies often ask probing questions whenever they phone referees and some will record these conversations in writing to give to the employer, along with their own assessment of the candidate. A key question they might ask is “Would you hire this person again?” A pause, or a qualifying phrase, at this point can seriously undermine an application.

Consequently, if you have the slightest doubt about including a referee, it’s worth asking them whether they feel they’d be in a position to be 100% positive about your work performance. But before posing this question, it’s worth contacting them whenever you’re looking for a new job and having a chat with them.

It’s also worth sending them a copy of your updated CV — both out of politeness and for its potential practical value. Your CV will remind them of what you’re asking them to support and can sometimes lead to job opportunities via your referees’ network of contacts before you’ve even applied for a vacancy.

So who are you going to select as your referees? First, don’t even think of using a friend or local dignatory. This idea was once quite common, but it’s now well and truly dead.

You’ll need two or three people who’re in a position to speak about your work performance — three if you’re applying for a senior role in government or through an executive recruitment agency, but otherwise two is usually enough.

Ideally, these are people to whom you’ve reported in your last two or three jobs. If possible, include your current employer. In many jobs, this would be a recipe for disaster but it’s quite common in, for example, the education sector.

Include the current job title of each of your referees, the name of their employer, the city or town in which their work is based and their mobile, work and/or home phone numbers.

If you reported to them in one of their former job roles, list the former role and the organisation to which you both belonged.

If you’ve recently been involved in full-time study, you could include one or two tutors as referees. If you’ve recently been self-employed, you could use your accountant, business advisor, solicitor and/or a major client of your business.

Unless it’s obvious, describe your role relationship with each referee.

Avoid writing “Referees available on request”. This is a poor second to listing them. The roles they’ve held in relationship to your own role can speak well of you, even if they aren’t contacted.

Whoever you choose, never forget that the hiring decision can rest on whatever they say about you. And if they hesitate in the wrong places, or come across as equivocating, it could easily ruin your chances.

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