Why you need to vet and coach your job references

At their best, good job references are your cheerleaders. The best ones can convince a hiring manager why you are the best person for the job with their glowing recommendation. But at their worst, they can be the reason why you get ruled out of contention.

A hiring manager is influenced by whom they speak to and what they learn in those crucial job reference calls. They know that up to 81% of job seekers lie during job interviews, and they will be on the hunt to sniff out information about how excited and prepared you really are for the role.

To make sure the hiring manager hears the right information about you, you need to be strategic about which kind of people you pick, and prepare them for what kinds of questions they may hear. Here’s how to do it right:

Give your job reference proper notice

The last thing you want is for your job reference to sound surprised when a hiring manager calls them out of the blue asking about your work ethic: “Uhhhh…I don’t know her?” You should give your job reference ample notice about who the hiring manager is and how they will be contacting them. An emailed recommendation is going to require different preparation than a phone call.

Above all, you should ask their permission to be used as a job reference before you sign them up for the role. Fifteen percent of employees said they were putting down references who had no idea they were being listed as references. Don’t do this. Asking is not only a professional courtesy, it’s strategic. The request to be your reference is when you can feel out how enthusiastic your reference is about giving you a recommendation for a job. If you’re unsure of what the reference would say about you, do not pick them to vouch for you.

Coach them about what kind of questions they’ll be asked

Once you’ve picked your team of cheerleaders, you need to coach them about what kind of questions they’ll be asked. There is no shame in updating them about what you have been up to in the last few months if this is someone you do not work with closely. Send them a copy of recent projects you have done, your resume and the cover letter you used to apply for the role. Recognize that different colleagues are able to speak about different skills. A peer will have different knowledge about your internal influence and leadership abilities than a boss.

To prepare them, tell them what kind of qualities the job is seeking, so that they can speak to that. You do not want them to have no answer on your editing abilities if the job wants excellent editing skills. “Tell them why you believe the company wants to hire you and how you are likely to be useful for that company so they can reinforce that,” Priscilla Claman, the co-founder of Career Strategiesm, told Harvard Business Review. “One could talk about your ability to establish relationships with colleagues, another about your technical skills, and another about your project management abilities.”

Recognize that common reference questions will ask how you perform under adversity like “How well did the candidate perform under stressful conditions such as facing sales or project deadlines?” or “Are there any areas that the candidate could use improvement?” If you know your reference would not be able to provide a positive example or spin a positive out of a negative, you may be better off choosing a different reference.

Your job references ultimately reveal your character. Who is able to give you a recommendation reflects the kind of professional you are. Half-hearted recommendations reveal that you did not do your homework. It’s up to you to make sure that the vision of how you see yourself as a working professional is getting told.