‘How Do I Choose a Job Reference When I've Had a String of Bad Bosses?' and Other Tricky Questions
October 23, 2017
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Looking back, I really can’t complain about the hiring process for my first editorial assistant job out of college. Phone interview with the hiring manager? Breezy. Editing test? Nailed it. Skype call with the editor-in-chief? After scrambling to test the acoustics in a few conference rooms on campus, I eventually dialed in from my bedroom and had a lovely chat. Crisis averted!
But when it came time to supply my potential future boss with a list of professional references, I panicked. Between professors, internship managers, bosses at part-time jobs, college mentors, extra curricular advisors … who *should* I tap to talk up my hireability?
I eventually ended up emailing six people I’d worked with and providing four names to the hiring manager when she’d originally asked for three. Despite the overkill, I got the job.
To help any new grads out there, plus anyone else on the job-hunting scene, I asked career coach Hallie Crawford how to choose the best references if you find yourself in one of these tricky situations.
Scenario 1: You're a new college grad (like I was) applying for your first professional job. Who are your strongest references?
Turns out combing through my whole college network was a good place to start, but Crawford says new grads should ultimately tap whomever can speak to the skills that align most with the job. For instance, a professor can speak to how you hit deadlines on a months-long capstone project; an internship manager can talk about you can code with the best of them; a supervisor can attest to your leadership skills and dedication to a certain cause ... you get the picture.
As you narrow your list, contact each person to confirm they’re comfortable serving as positive reference. In doing so, you can also give them a brief outline of what you details you hope they’ll relay to the hiring manager.
Chances are, you’ll need to provide several references anyway, so just make sure to list your relationship with each person and any major projects or accomplishments you worked on together.
Thinking beyond the classroom or paid work can also help. “If you haven't held any jobs, think about any places you might have volunteered or done small jobs for, such as babysitting or lawn mowing,” Crawford adds.
Scenario 2: Your current boss doesn’t know you’re interviewing, but a former co-worker does. Is it OK to list a peer as a reference instead of a manager?
When my friend told me she was applying for jobs and listed a former co-worker — with about the same title and level of responsibility — as a reference, I was skeptical. Turns out, this can be a smart strategy.
According to a SkillSurvey report, co-workers are more likely to highlight a peer’s interpersonal skills (whether they’re knowledgeable, friendly or understanding) whereas managers emphasize task-related behaviors (whether they’re dependable or reliable). Both types of recommendations are important — hiring managers want to know how well you work with others, after all.
Another bonus of a peer reference? They can help you out with the dreaded “what’s your biggest weakness” question — co-workers were more likely to say a job candidate was “too helpful” or a “perfectionist” when asked about potential areas of improvement. Work flaw, meet positive spin.
Scenario 3: You've had a string of bad bosses, and you know they wouldn't agree to serve as a positive reference for you. How far back in your work history can you go without it being a red flag?
Speaking of peer references, here’s a good place where it’d make sense to use one.
“It is always a good idea to include at least one reference from your last position if possible,” Crawford explains. “Try a co-worker that you worked closely with in the same department and who is aware of the tasks you took care of, or a client you worked with.”
If neither of these are options, then it’s OK to move on to references from several jobs ago. “They can still speak to your strengths, and having some references is better than having none,” Crawford says. Then, when you’re detailing your working relationship with each person, highlight specifics about why that experience stands out, even if it was years ago. For example, you might be listing a reference from three jobs ago, but during that time you worked with them to launch a game-changing product the company still uses today.
Scenario 4: One of your go-to references has always given you glowing recommendations, but they’ve recently had their reputation tarnished in some way. Is it still OK to include their name?
In this situation, it’s best to put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes and think how they’ll react to seeing this name on your list. Namely, will your reference’s opinion be taken seriously?
This will mostly depend on just how big the issue was, as in, if it stayed within the department or within the company walls, you may be in the clear. If the offense is easily Google-able, though, dig deeper into your contact book, Crawford suggests.
Now that you’ve narrowed your references list, make sure you’ve given each person a few day’s notice that a call or email could be headed their way (along with some suggested talking points). And don’t forget to add them to your list of people to send a quick “thank you” message to.