Your references aren’t who you think they are

Your professional references are your three most recent bosses, right? Wrong.

Of course, almost all employers will ask you for a list of references at some point during the hiring process. They want to hear from people who’ve worked with you – preferably former employers – who can speak to how you perform on the job.

So, you diligently turn over a list of your three previous managers with email addresses and phone numbers for your new potential employer to get in touch with.

That is not always the best course of action. Think about your relationship with those former bosses. Did you get along? Did they admire your work ethic and abilities? Did you part on good terms?

Almost all reference calls are going to include this question: “Would you hire and work with this candidate again if you had the opportunity to?”

It can be a major red flag if your previous boss demonstrates any hesitation in offering a positive response to that question.

Too many candidates make the mistake of simply listing their most recent employers without considering what those particular people may actually say about them.

Here is a true story about an editor I almost hired. At the end of a job interview, handed me a typed list of her three professional references, but as she passed the paper over, she said, “But don’t call the first one.”

I looked at it. It was her most recent boss. I looked back up to the candidate. She was also scanning the contacts on the paper in front of me, reading them upside down. She then tapped the second name with a finger and added, “You’d better not call that one either.”

Now, that may be a bit of an extreme example, but I mention it often when discussing references because it so perfectly highlights the misconception many job seekers have about who their professional references should be. In this case, the candidate obviously thought that she had no choice but to list the names and numbers of her most recent supervisors (even though she clearly thought they were unlikely to speak well of her.)

If you didn’t get along with your former manager, you parted on bad terms, or they did not appreciate your abilities, don’t use them as a reference.

Instead, use team leads, coworkers, customers/clients, partners, or simply references from other jobs that ended better for you. Are there people with manager/supervisor job titles who can speak well for you at the company?

Only offer professional references who you are confident want to see you succeed and would want to work with you again. After they have spoken with these people, potential employers will have a fairly good impression of you. They might think that the lack of your most recent employer as a reference is a red flag, and if so, they may ask you about it.

However, even if that happens, your explanation of how you and your previous boss weren’t a great fit will come across much better after the employer has just heard three professionals speak of your work in glowing terms.

On the other hand, having one of the first people they discuss your candidacy with offer a negative impression will most likely crush your chances of being hired right there.

Your professional references are people you have worked within some capacity who would not hesitate to work with you again and recommend you to others. Anybody else does more harm than good.

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