Here’s How to Provide Quality References

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You’ve agreed to serve as someone’s reference, and you want your recommendation to be helpful, compelling and memorable. 

This isn’t a new challenge — in fact, Cicero, the first-century A.D. Roman statesman, complained to a colleague about the challenges of making a reference truly stand out: “Because I am most particularly recommending so many people to you,” he wrote, “I may be suspected of making all my recommendations equally strong as a sort of bid for popularity.” 

Two thousand years later, references — both written and verbal — remain an essential evaluation tool for jobs, awards and higher education. For job seekers, “a good reference can help to validate a hiring manager’s decision to move to the offer stage and can be a key differentiator between several applicants with similar experience and skills,” says Joseph Tateoka, vice president, talent director, at Edelman in Chicago.

With so much riding on good recommendations, it’s important to get them right. Here are some tips on how to provide quality references that make an impact.

Get specific information.

“Find out what perspective you’re being asked to provide; discuss it with the candidate and prepare some thoughtful responses and examples,” says Barbara Kerr, APR, Fellow PRSA, chair of the PRSA College of Fellows.

 If you don’t feel you’re knowledgeable in a certain area, be honest with the candidate. She adds, “Many hiring managers have conducted calls with references who repeatedly respond with ‘I can’t speak to that’ or ‘I don’t know.’ That’s frustrating for everyone.”

We often assume references are strictly professional. 

However, as Chris Thomas, president of the Intrepid Agency in Salt Lake City, explains, all references are, to an extent, about character. 

“Character is about a candidate’s values — integrity, trustworthiness, meeting deadlines, confidentiality and self-management,” Thomas says. “Now that so many people are working from home, these traits are more important than ever — and references should speak to those if possible.”

Provide detailed examples.

If you can’t readily recall details about the candidate, then Tateoka suggests the following: “Don’t hesitate to ask the candidate to jog your memory about work you did together, or to supply you with the basic speaking points they would like you to cover.” 

It’s also a good idea for references to request talking points that are unique to their experience with the candidate. That way, he notes, multiple references aren’t all saying the same thing about a candidate when an employer calls.

For a reference to be truly valuable, Thomas explains, “a hiring manager has to move the discussion past ‘this is the greatest person ever.’” 

Focus on particular skills you’ve observed up close — calm under pressure, relationship building, creative idea generation. If possible, speak to both individual and team contributions. 

“In PR, where people so often work in teams, managers must discern a candidate’s individual and team skill sets,” Thomas says. “A good reference will provide examples of both.”

Tell a story. 

The best references paint a picture of what the candidate brought to their organization. “People remember stories,” Kerr says. 

Several years ago, I served as a reference for a candidate — a former colleague who had jumped in to help me complete a critical, time-sensitive report after my partner on the project had to drop out. 

When I spoke with the hiring manager, I relayed the experience as a story — my dismay at the loss of my partner, the candidate’s enthusiastic offer to jump in and help me, her painstaking research to learn the proper format for the report, and finally, my elation when the finished product received rave reviews. 

When I finished, I apologized for my long answer, but the interviewer, who had been listening intently, said, “That was one of the best examples I’ve ever heard a reference provide.” The candidate got the job.

Prepare for the questions. 

Kerr notes that a reference call, like a job interview, is a conversation, and references should prepare for a back-and-forth discussion. She adds that references may also be asked about a candidate’s weaknesses or professional development gaps: “Many references don’t expect those questions,” she says, “and they’ve only prepared a list of compliments.” 

References should ask the candidate about areas where steps are being taken to improve. Tateoka stresses that references, above all else, advocate — they demonstrate public support for a candidate. He adds, “You can be an advocate even when you are talking about someone’s weaknesses by positioning them as opportunities.”

Emphasize these points in your reference letters.

If your reference is written rather than verbal, then you have the extra challenge of ensuring that your recommendation hits the mark without any additional context or explanation. Emphasizing these points could help:

  • Ask for the order. Kerr recommends that, after providing praise and examples, references close with an explicit call to action: “I recommend you hire (name) for this position because…”
  • Be succinct. Thomas puts it this way: “Writing a reference is a lot like pitching a journalist. Make it brief and easy to read.”    
  • Offer to extend the letter into a personal conversation. Include your contact info and invite the reference requester to talk further. 
  • Say no — nicely. The experts agree: If for any reason you don’t feel you can serve as a good reference, you owe it to yourself, the candidate and the decision-making organization to decline the request. Be nice, but honest. 

“You need to kindly and positively tell the candidate why — and if possible, turn this into a learning experience for him or her,” Kerr says.

 Tateoka adds that focusing on the advocacy aspect of your role as a reference can help: “Simply explain to the candidate that in this particular situation, you can’t advocate for them. That way, it doesn’t come across as a personal slight or a lack of respect.”

A good reference can go a long way toward influencing a hire. Make sure you’re equipped with the tools to help your candidate succeed. 

Return to Current Issue Career Development | October 2020
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