Find Your Dream Job, Episode 173:
How to Make Good References Great, with Vicki Lind
Airdate: January 9, 2019
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the publisher of Mac’s List. It’s an online community that connects talented professionals with meaningful work.
I believe everyone can find a job they love. But to do this, you need to learn the skills to build a successful career. From professional networking to personal branding, you’ve got to get good at job hunting.
This show helps you do this. Every week on Find Your Dream Job, I interview a different career expert. We discuss the tools and tactics you need to find the work you want.
This week, I’m talking to Vicki Lind about how to make good references great.
Vicki Lind helps her clients through every step of a job search. And she says the references you choose make a big difference in your success.
According to Vicki, the best reference is someone who supervised you and is a fan of your work. Once you pick your references, you need to coach them, too. Don’t take them for granted.
Vicki also adds that you need a strategy for dealing with bad references. In our conversation today, she has suggestions for what you can do about this.
Many employers may have a policy of not giving references no matter how good a job you did. Vicki shares her ideas today for what you can do when this happens.
Want to learn more? Listen in now at the Mac’s List studio as I interview Vicki Lind about how to make good references great.
Vicki Lind is a career counselor and job search coach. She’s also the founder and owner of Vicki Lind and Associates. Vicki and her team help clients find the sweet spot where meaning meets money.
And she’s the co-author of a new book, Landing a Job Worth Having. It’s a book full of tips on how to use job boards, tailor your resume, and interview for your next job.
She joins us today in person here in the Mac’s List studio in Portland, Oregon.
Vicki, thanks for making the trip downtown.
It’s a pleasure to have you. Our topic, as you know, is how to make good references great. Vicki, let’s start with the basics.
How should someone choose a reference?
The absolute best is somebody who has supervised you and supervised you recently. If that has been a positive relationship and you’ve made a positive contribution, that’s your first choice. If that is damaged or you’re fearful that it’s damaged, I’ll give out some tip later about that.
The backup would be somebody high level in the organization, maybe your boss’ boss. Or somebody else who was a peer.
Okay, those are the people you should ask. How about protocol here, Vicki? Should you assume that you’re going to get a good reference and just give the name without asking? Or should you ask for permission first?
What is the common courtesy here?
It’s more than a courtesy. It’s taking care of yourself and not guessing. I have a funny little story about when I interviewed somebody when I was at Linfield College. I liked him and I called his reference and the reference said, “He is such a great guy. Somebody calls me all the time for references. I tell them he’s so great. Except for when he loses his temper and it takes years to do the cleanup after that.”
This poor guy had been using this reference who damaged and made it so he really couldn’t get a job and he didn’t know. If you’re not sure, talking to your reference, talking to them about why you’re excited about the job, seeing if they can give you some hints in terms of if they think you’d be a good fit and some of your accomplishments at that job would be a fit.
That’s the starting place.
Don’t take your references for granted. Reach out to them and both ask for permission and then draw them out about what they might say.
One other question about people you might choose for references, what about family and friends or coworkers, Vicki? Should you use them as references?
It’s a big problem if you’re in a family-owned business and everybody is a family member. Then, you’ve got an ethical question that you have to answer yourself if they have a different last name. People don’t trust family members in the same way they do a professional relationship.
Look for that supervisor who’s a big fan. That’s going to be the gold standard. What about people who are applying for multiple jobs? Even if it’s only a small number, three or five different positions during a search.
Should they use the same references for every application?
That’s a very good question. No, everything about job searching today is thinking about your audience, from the resume to the cover letter. What is important to them?
At one hand you may be looking more at a facilities management and at another place more of an art studio coordination. An art department head would be valid in one case and somebody who might be the head of a facility in a more traditional place for the other.
How do make that choice about who might be most valuable? Does it come back to the requirements of the job or connections? What kind of factors should listeners take into consideration in making those strategic choices?
I would say you’re looking for three. Three people who are in town, you’re sure of their contact information, and you can look at them as a set. They want to both reinforce your competitive strengths that you’re saying in your interview and they might want to have certain aspects of their perspective of you.
I’d look at three. It’s a red flag if one of them is not a supervisor and a supervisor from fairly recently. That’s one of the set.
One more tactical question here, should your three references be your last three supervisors? Or, again, is this a strategic choice where you want to mix it up?
As long as there is one out of the three and there’s not something… I mean if you’re applying for a software position and two of your references aren’t from that environment, then you want a supervisor from a previous software position to be in that set.
It would be a red flag if you skipped one that’s most pertinent to the industry or position.
We’ve talked about the who; who you should reach out to and how you might approach them and why that’s important and some of the strategic factors to consider.
Let’s talk about the reference itself, Vicki. How can we take a good reference and make it a great one? Get somebody to say more, really dig in, and become superfans on our behalf?
It starts quite a bit earlier in terms of relationship building, post-employment. It’s not very good if you disappear from somebody, they haven’t heard from you, and then you’re making an ask. One of the reasons I’m a huge LinkedIn fan, and I know you’ve had speakers about that, if somebody’s on LinkedIn and they’re posting professional updates or articles on social media, you have so many ways to show them that you appreciate their ideas or their thoughts, or you’re a fan.
Or you just posted a happy birthday so you may have noticed those 92 people who said happy birthday. You don’t want to ignore that kind of social capital and then be asking for a big ask. That’s where the whole process begins.
Pay attention to relationships, don’t become invisible after you perhaps leave a company, find ways to stay in touch with former supervisors. That’s step one.
What are some other steps, Vicki, that listeners should keep in mind? Because, again, they want to take somebody who is probably enthusiastic but they really want them to be a champion.
Right. Everything about your job search is a campaign. Like a political campaign or a brand that’s rolling out. You want it to be on topic and on brand. It’s your job to say that you are the candidate who gets things done on time, on budget, on schedule.
You’re the candidate who’s a great team member. Those go from the cover letter, from the resume, to the interview. You want your fan, your reference to be on topic. The best way to do that is, when you’re contacting them for that, tell them why you think you’re a great fit for the position.
Remind them of some things that you did on the prior, in the position with them, that are a good match and make you optimistic that this is going to be an excellent opportunity for you.
It’s not simply a question of sending an email to somebody and saying, “Hey, I applied for a job at the ACME corporation. I gave your name as a reference.” You actually want to have a conversation, it sounds like, with the reference. Tell them about the position, why you’re excited, and what you have to offer.
Yes, absolutely. Number one mistake. It’s a little embarrassing when somebody’s applied again and again and their references are contacting again and again but you do need to do that. As long as that person’s open to having that talk with you.
How much coaching should you do with your references, in addition to a conversation, Vicki? Should you consider sending over some talking points or some notes about the position and the needs of the employer?
You need to get permission first. Do they want to just go by the seat of their pants and they start to tell things that they remember is on topic? You certainly could say, “Is there any way I can help you prepare for this?”
You certainly would have sent your resume and you would ask them to look at that and the position announcement. If you can get permission, it depends how comfortable the relationship is, to tell them about some of your talking points, that would be great.
How often do you recommend people be in touch with their references during a search? It sounds like there’s an initial contact, where you ask for that permission, then, looping back again to let someone know that you’ve given their name for a specific position, and arranging, perhaps, for a brief conversation to talk about the job and the needs of the employer.
How do you continue that relationship? Do you let people know if you didn’t get opportunities? What do you recommend?
From the beginning, you read the tone of voice, the level of enthusiasm, how often they say they’re too busy, how quickly they get back to you. You’re continuing to notice if you might be bugging them.
I think we can wait when we talk about problematic situations. Like if they’re not taking your calls and you’re worried about what that means. We can talk about that later.
Well, I’m really enjoying this conversation. Particularly… you know, we’ve talked about good references here.
Let’s finish, Vicki, by just talking about the why. How does this kind of attention to the relationship and these conversations and this coaching, how does that turn that good reference into a great reference?
How does it make a difference in your experience?
I think you already lead me right down the path to the most important thing. They’re talking on topic consistently with what you’ve said. There’s not another story that goes for the strengths and the weaknesses.
Everything about a job search is about what you’ve done in the past and what you will do for the employer. In the interview, it’s not about what you’ve done. It’s about, “So, what for the employer and for that company?”
The great reference is one where you can talk about and elicit from them, what was the impact? You helped double the social media, our team brought on a new major client.
One of the ways to remind that reference is saying, “You know, one of the reasons I’m so happy you’re a reference is, on my performance review, you really noted what a great team member… how great we were together in bringing on that new major client.”
You’re tickling the memory of what the contributions were.
They’re not only recalling pleasant associations about working with you, they remember your accomplishments and what you got done for the company and the organization. Often, with relationships that go back some years, here’s where the coaching can help.
You’re just reminding them of what you did for them.
Good. We’re going to take a break, Vicki, and when we come back we’re going to talk about the other side of the coin which are the bad or the iffy references and what people can do about them.
Okay. Thanks so much, Mac.
As we’re learning today, you can’t take your references for granted. The same rule applies to salary negotiation.
Discussing money makes many of us uncomfortable. In fact, some people, including me early in my career, accept an employer’s first offer.
But if you want to get the salary you deserve, you need to talk about money.
Think about this for a moment. Your manager will base your first — and your next — raise on your starting salary. If you make this amount as big as possible, you’ll earn thousands of dollars more as you get future annual increases.
I’ve created a new guide that can help. It’s called How to Talk About Money in an Interview.
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Now, let’s get back to the show.
We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Vicki Lind. She’s a career counselor and job search coach. Vicki is also the co-author of a new book, Landing a Job Worth Having. She joins us today in person in the Mac’s List studio in Portland.
Vicki, before the break we were talking about good references and how to make them great. We also dug into who you should ask for a reference. We started with the people who know you well and are big fans of yours.
Sometimes, Vicki, we may not get the best references. Particularly if people go back to former supervisors and there may be a story there.
Let’s talk about that. How can people deal with bad or iffy references? Particularly if they’ve been fired or laid off.
Laid off is different than fired. Fired, you know there was a weakness and if you have hindsight as part of that separation, you negotiated that. “What will be said about me? How will this be explained?”
That may be a little late for somebody but that was the best thing. Otherwise, people just really lose sleep. They think of the worst thing the boss ever said to them. They feel so vulnerable.
Here’s a piece of good news. The biggest trend that’s different in references is that most companies, particularly large companies, are not allowed to give content references. The first thing you do if you’re feeling vulnerable on what will be said, find out if your boss can say something.
You call Human Resources and say, “I’d like to know the policy of this company on references.” If it’s large, the largest percentage of the time they’re going to say, “We can validate dates of employment.” Then you ask a follow-up question. “What if they ask if you left in good terms?”
You want to know the answer to both of those questions. If your boss can’t give a content reference, what you’re fearful of won’t happen.
Let’s break that down. Let’s go with the example of the large employer. They have a policy of not giving references, no matter how wonderful your performance. Someone makes that call to HR and they say, “We can’t make references. Our policy is not to give references.”
Let’s break that down. I’m intrigued by your point about making an agreement before you leave. If you’ve been fired or you’ve been laid off and getting clear about that agreement about the story that is going to be told.
We’re assuming again that an employer in this instance will give a reference if the policy doesn’t prevent that from happening. How do you recommend people have that conversation? They’ve just been told… Let’s say they’ve been fired, they’re going to be leaving the building in an hour.
How do they negotiate that story?
That’s a pretty traumatic moment if it’s a surprise to the person. I think that the most you can do at that period, if it’s your last conversation with the boss, if it’s not just HR, is say, “Can we be in conversation later about how references will be handled?” Because if your adrenaline is all pumping like crazy, that may not be the best period.
I think the commonality of what you agree worked well and what didn’t work well. You want to move towards, if they find it acceptable, that they were moving on in a different direction and there was no longer the fit that there was.
If it was no longer a fit in an area that you’re really bad at, like I’m a really bad proofreader and I’m a good draftsperson. If I had a job where I was supposed to do both and it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t apply for a new job that spoke to my weakness.
I’d only apply to a new job, and I would tell them, “The other job was not a fit because unlike you, it asked for proofreading which is not my strong suit.” Then they’re not going to be blindsided by hearing that.
Okay. As you talk, it occurs to me that there is also an opportunity here that if there’s a change in the direction of an organization to get a manager to talk about your contributions before the change. Then, you have the opportunity to say, “Well, they moved in a different direction. They needed a different set of skills and I didn’t have those.”
Then you can say, “Would that be acceptable if I present that in the future?”
I love the advice about not trying to have that conversation in the moment when perhaps you’re about to leave the building and scheduling it later, until you can be thoughtful and all the parties have a chance to reflect.
That’s firing. Let’s talk about layoff. How do you recommend people talk about a layoff and use references in that instance?
That’s not a problem at all. We’re in an area where everybody’s merged and changes directions. Markets go up and down and workforces are collapsible. The more you normalize it to say that the workforce needs were different, then that’s not any problem.
It’s a problem if your resume has a bunch of short ones and you’re the one who was chosen to go. Normally that’s not a problem at all.
Okay, so, listeners should be aware that there just isn’t the stigma that there might’ve been a generation or two ago when involved in a layoff.
Let’s talk about that scenario where you have been fired and it’s not going to be a good reference, Vicki. How do you recommend people approach that?
I’ve worked with clients on three different strategies.
One, it was absolutely clear and they needed to get another job, likely a contract job, so that there’s a more recent reference at the top of their resume. If you can do a project where you have a recent reference, the further it is in your history.
If it’s at the top of the resume and nobody high-up will give you a good reference, you may have to do that.
There’s something that I didn’t talk about that’s a great way to test the waters. My clients aren’t very accurate about what’s going to happen if the reference… if somebody talks to the reference.
Because so many companies don’t give references, that has elevated the importance of recommendations on LinkedIn. I had a client who did not want people to talk to his most recent supervisor and he had twenty references from vendors and colleagues and somebody higher up and another department head.
From the cover letter on, he said, “You will be amazed how many people comment on what a cooperative person I am to have on your team.” He drove them to those recommendations. It was very late in the process that they actually got to the boss.
They were already convinced that he was a great guy and that the boss was kind of off-tune.
These are the recommendations or those short statements on LinkedIn that you can ask for from fellow LinkedIn members who you’ve connected with. Hiring managers pay attention to those. They matter.
Any other advice about how to deal with bad references?
Let’s see. Well, we talked about just another job. I want to talk about the conversation. I had two clients who thought there were going to be bad references. They left on unpleasant terms. They lost more sleep than their boss did over it.
When things had cooled down, they did one of two things. They asked a friend to do a phony reference. You know what I found out today? I didn’t even know this. I was reading about this online in case I was missing something.
There are companies that do reference checks. You can hire a company to do a reference check. Find out if your worst fears are true. You could have a friend do it or a company do it. Or you could do it yourself in a straightforward conversation.
“Time has gone by, I own that I wasn’t always on time and that I let some family problems interfere with my performance. I want to let you know that I have taken care of that and I’m thinking fondly about what we did accomplish together. I would appreciate it if you could let me know if you think you would be a reference that I should be giving.” That’s the straight way.
Okay, so, do the research. You could hire a company to find out what a boss might say, you could ask a friend to pretend to be a hiring manager, or you could have this, what is probably a very difficult conversation, with the hiring manager yourself.
Acknowledge that you made some errors. Just have a direct conversation about what this person might say.
Right. Then, you can lead that also. You can say, “Your feedback all along, was that it was my attention to details rather than how I got along collaboratively. Since this job draws on that, I’m wondering if you would be able to speak to that positively.”
Vicki, what’s your advice about people, after they have that conversation, they know it’s still going to be a mixed reference. How should they handle that in their conversations with the hiring manager that they’re in touch with?
Should they say, “If you contact Mary Smith at the ACME corporation, she’s going to talk about this and I want you to know about it.”? What do you recommend?
Many downsides have an upside in context. I had a client who was very slow at proofreading and she was let go of one. Then she was hired for a very, or was interviewing for a very upscale PR firm who was representing National Geographic and things with huge distributions.
She had said in the interview, “My reference say I’m not very fast and that wasn’t a fit at GM company,” or whatever it was. “Here, I know you’ll never have to recall something because you’re embarrassed. Because I get it right.”
She was able to contextualize the weakness so it was a fit in the new environment.
She got out ahead of it, talked about it in terms that made her a stronger candidate, and also appealed to the employer.
Let’s talk about, in the beginning, we discussed relationships with references, how it’s important to stay in touch with them. What about after you get the job, Vicki? What do you recommend people do with their references?
I want to insert something in a step before this.
I had a guy come in yesterday who was one of three finalists and hadn’t landed the job. He wanted interview practice. I said, “It’s one of two things. If you’re interviewing a lot and up to a final, it’s either your references or your interview.”
I said, “Do you know if they’ve gotten to the stage of even talking to your references?” Because that’s changed now. Now seventy-five percent of companies just do, once they’ve chosen a candidate, they’re confirming with the reference check.
You don’t put it on your resume from the beginning unless they ask for it. He didn’t even know.
He said, “Oh, my references love me.” and I said, “Well if you want to know, let’s say you were one of two finalists. They checked the references. You want to know what concerns they might have had.”
Stay in touch with your references. Asking, have they heard from anybody, if they did what were the kind of questions and thanking them at that point. Then, of course, a big celebration, a big thank you if you land.
You can touch in during that process.
I’m so glad you brought that up because I think that is an important step. One, I as someone who serves as a reference occasionally, don’t see a lot of candidates do. It’s invaluable feedback if that reference tells you, “Well, the manager had this question or this concern.” Because it gives you the opportunity to go back perhaps and talk to the manager.
Vicki, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I could keep talking for another hour or so but we’re going to have to bring it to a close.
Tell us, what’s next for you.
I’m very excited. We just found the last ten little nits to pick out of the book and it’s going to the printer. It’s called “Landing a Job Worth Having” by myself and my colleagues, Tifini Roberts, who’s an expert resume writer, and Leslie Yeargers, who’s also a job search coach.
We’ll be letting people know when that comes out in a few weeks. It was a lot of work to research what has changed and how much has changed, even what we’re saying about LinkedIn for references.
We’re happy to work with people either virtually or here in Portland, on both their job search and their career transitions and their practice interviews.
I know you work with people across the country and even the globe. I know people can learn more about your services, Vicki, by visiting your website, aportlandcareer.com.
Vicki, thanks for being on our show today.
Okay, you’re welcome.
Well, I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Vicki. I certainly did. I loved the process that she laid out for how to both build relationships with references, stay in touch with them, and contact and coach and work with them all the way through the job search. Right into the moment that you get that offer.
References are definitely a vital part of the job search but so is talking about the salary you want. Your starting salary, the number you accept when you say yes to that offer, it sets the base for all the annual raises that follow. You want that figure to be as high as possible.
You can make that happen if you get comfortable and good at talking about money. Think about the negotiation process just as you have to do with references.
To help you get started, check out my free guide, How to Talk About Money. Go to macslist.org/moneytalk.
You’ll get practical tips for how to negotiate a great salary. Go to macslist.org/moneytalk.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Find Your Dream Job.
Join us next Wednesday when our special guest will be John Ribeiro. He’ll explain how to show confidence in a job interview.
Until next time, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.