You Have an Offer? How to Choose and Brief Your Referees

This is an article authored by Executive Interview Coaching, a Career Money Life Community member.

You’ve nailed multiple rounds of interviews for your dream role, and there’s been a verbal offer, subject to references. You’re nervous, and rightly so.

References are a really important part of the hiring process. The point of the reference check is to validate the interview process. Choose your referees poorly, and it can jeopardise the entire opportunity.

“Everyone always says you can never pick a bad referee, but I disagree,” said Executive Interview Coaching founder Richard Elstone. “I’ve had people nominate bad referees and it can break or stall the hiring process.”

Make references relevant

There’s no point using someone whom you worked with 10 years ago as a referee. They may have forgotten your achievements and will probably no longer be able to vouch for your current skills with any real credibility.

Above all else, references should be relevant. Ideally, they should have worked with you fairly recently and be pertinent to the role you’re going for.

Your references should know you well and be able to speak honestly about your performance.

“They need to know what your strengths are, what you could improve and what you have achieved for the organisation,” said Richard.

If your referees are currently working with you, things can get tricky. “Using someone that you used to report into who has now left the company is sometimes useful in these types of situations,” said Richard. “They can vouch for your performance in your current company.”

Sometimes you’ll need to provide a 360-style reference – that is, a boss, a peer and a subordinate. “Think about people who have been part of your team,” said Richard.

Aim for consistency

One thing search consultants look for is consistency – consistency in how you portray yourself in the interview process and consistency when it comes to what your references say about you.

“Search consultants shouldn’t be seeing anything different coming from the reference to what they’ve uncovered in the interview process,” said Richard. “And even though we’re talking to 2-3 different people, they should say similar things. If they don’t, the alarm bells may start ringing.”

Brief your references correctly

Search consultants will be trying to compile a well-rounded reference report to deliver to their clients. Typically, during a reference check, they’ll want to know:

  • How long has the referee known the candidate, and in what capacity
  • Their role, responsibilities and key achievements
  • Confirmation of the candidate’s reporting line
  • Strengths and areas for improvement
  • What is the person like in the workplace
  • Whether the referee would work with the person again
  • Overall, how the employer would benefit by hiring the candidate.

“I’ve been in a situation where a referee was not properly briefed, and whilst they remembered the person fondly and well, they couldn’t remember all the achievements of the person,” said Richard. “So, really, the reference was wasted, and that’s not a good impression when you’re getting towards the pointy end of the hiring process. It’s really important to ensure the references are properly briefed.”

Once you’ve identified a potential referee, call and ask their permission to use them as a referee.

“You need to let them know why you are interested in the role, what the role is and ask them if they are prepared to be a referee,” said Richard. “Before you hang up, remind them when you worked together (the dates and roles you had) and what your achievements were so that they can give a full report to the search consultant or company about your background and achievements.”

Provide references when asked – not before

As an executive, it’s not necessary to include your references in your CV. The people you use may be extremely senior and not appreciate having their phone number and/or email details on a resume.

You don’t even need to write “references available on request” because it’s obvious in an executive appointment process that references would be required at some point. “Some people might put the names and titles of referees to show how well connected they are, but that doesn’t really help at all,” said Richard. “That can actually send the wrong message.”

Instead, provide your references to the search consultant when asked.

Forget about written references

Written references are not worth the paper they are written on, according to Richard.

“People can write pretty much anything and then get their referees to sign it,” he said. “What we’re after is a verbal reference via a properly arranged phone call. These will generally take about 30 mins to complete.”

Need help with the hiring process?

Everyone gets nervous at the reference check stage, and that’s completely normal. But if you do want peace of mind that you’ve chosen the right references and briefed them correctly, Executive Interview Coaching can help through our Career Transition and Coaching Programs.

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