Job applications: how to get positive references?
April 18, 2011 7:06 AM   Subscribe

So what is the current protocol for getting professional references & making sure they're positive? Difficulty: I am still employed and don't want to tell The Boss I'm applying.

I'm in the USA, at the intersection of the tech industry and the legal industry.

I'm looking to switch jobs, and I have gotten past a couple of phone screens (yay!) to the point where I'm filling out a formal application and going in for an interview. They want references. My understanding has always been that you reach out to some professional contacts and ask if they'll be references, and if they say yes it's understood that they will be a positive reference. If they're not going to speak positively of you, they're supposed to say they don't know you well enough, or are uncomfortable, or whatever.

Is that right? Or is it advisable (or even possible) to probe your references more deeply and see if they're going to talk smack? It seems rude; I assume everyone knows what the reference-giving process is all about, and what they're getting into when they agree to be one. But when I was describing my application process to a friend of mine recently, she insisted that I should make sure my references were going to be positive. So I'm curious how to go about that, or even whether to go about it.

My performance at my current job is good; I have always had reviews ranging from good to "great" and I am not feeling like I'm about to be fired or anything, so I'm not particularly afraid of anything bad coming out. A new thing just came along that strikes me as perfect, is all, and I want to make sure I wrap up everything I can on my end.

(Sorry if it seems obnoxious to have a question like this anonymous; my handle is recognizable and I'm a little paranoid.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You should only be asking for references from people you know well and that you know will support you. If you do not have a lot of experience and haven't interacted a lot with people outside your company on a professional and personal level, this can be somewhat difficult.

If you worked somewhere else and left on good terms, that's always a place to start. If you have done any work in professional organizations/trade groups, those people are also good to tap.

I'm having trouble answering this one because I'm having trouble understanding the situation you are in where you don't know if someone you'd like to reach out to for a reference would back you up or not. No offense, but if you don't have that, then you need to network more.
posted by rich at 7:16 AM on April 18, 2011

It's all about how you ask. Recommended:

"I'm applying for a new job. Can I count on you for a strong, positive reference?"
posted by rokusan at 7:34 AM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

In my experience, when a company asks for references they expect at least one to be your current employer (and usually say so).

They are usually only approached after interview and generally not unless you are offered the job, and if the commpany you are leaving is big enough to have a HR department, it's very likely that your reference will be a form letter that confirms only your employment history and whatever other specific details are requested.

So if this sounds anything like your situation then I think you have nothing to worry about.

Practices may vary across the pond, and might work differently with small companies, so ymmv.
posted by londonmark at 7:43 AM on April 18, 2011

Yeah, what rokusan said. Ask explicitly for a letter of positive reference.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:06 AM on April 18, 2011

Honesty is good.

Tell the other company/agency that your current employer does not know you are pursuing other opportunities and that you can only provide peer/indirect management references.
posted by jkaczor at 9:25 AM on April 18, 2011

londonmark's reply tends to jive with my experience in the tech industry in the US.

Many companies have HR policies in place which restrict the ability to give qualitative references. If you want one of those start with someone you may have worked with at a previous place of work. These companies will only confirm start and end dates and sometimes job titles.

Most companies also understand that references shouldn't be contacted unless they are planning on making an offer. Telling them that you can provide references at that point is usually fine.

Anyway my point is to try to find some folks at a previous company or people that have left the company to provide references. Bosses are good, but everyone understands that asking a current boss for a reference is commonly a non-starter. Ex-coworkers can fill in the gap and with them yes vet them first.
posted by bitdamaged at 9:50 AM on April 18, 2011

Recruiter responding ...

It is expected that you will be offering only those references that are likely to speak well of you. It is also common courtesy to get advance permission to offer the person as a reference. That is your opportunity to ask, "I'd like to offer your name as a reference because I think you are in a good position to comment on my abilities in X, Y, and Z. Would that be OK with you?" If you can offer additional insight as to your likely responsibilities, that will enable the reference to be that much more helpful. If your reference will be constrained in the extent of his/her response, one hopes you would hear about it at this point so that you might seek out an alternate.

Do not be shy about asking the potential employer's policy about the timing of contacting references. ("When will my references be contacted? I'd like to give them a timely heads-up.") It's no big secret and knowing it will put your mind at ease. The answer will also tell you whom to give as a reference. Many companies have a policy of offering a position "contingent upon successful completion of reference and background checks". Receiving such an offer gives you the latitude for giving a current boss as a reference. It also gives the employer one final "out" should something go wrong (it rarely does).

Good luck.
posted by John Borrowman at 3:47 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

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