References Revisited: How to Ensure They Don't Cost You the Job

I've recently received a lot of letters like these from job seekers:

"I've been using the same three people for references since June. One of them didn't return a phone call promptly to a recruiter, and the recruiter had to contact me for additional references. I wondered if my reference had swine flu or was on vacation, but it soon became clear she was sitting on the request. Needless to say, I was a wee bit stunned, not to mention disappointed. Should I come out and ask her if she's sick of yapping recruiters' ears off or just assume the answer is yes and not use her for any future interviews I might finagle?" "

And:

""What do you do if you find yourself leaning on the same references time and again? I've been lucky enough to score some interviews, but that's three times in the last month my reference may have been contacted by an HR dept. Do I need to drum up some new names of people who will vouch for me? Send the ones who've already helped me out a box of chocolates or a set of new steak knives? Help!"

With so many people job hunting for the first time in two, five, even 15 years, there's a fair amount of confusion around staying in your references' good graces -- and ensuring they don't blow an opportunity for you. To set the record straight, I've collected suggestions from several headhunters, hiring managers and seasoned job seekers. "

Give Them a Heads Up

"The biggest faux pas is that people don't ask their contacts to be their references or notify them when they're going to be called," said Megan Slabinski, executive director of The Creative Group, a North American staffing agency.

Yet Slabinski, who's been in the hiring seat for a decade, says this happens all the time.

Kind of shortsighted when you consider that the ex-boss who's on an eight-week trek through the Himalayas and not checking her work phone or e-mail messages won't be much of a reference. Likewise, the former colleague caught off guard when a hiring manager calls to say that you've listed them as a reference may not offer you the wholehearted recommendation you were hoping for.

"Even a subtle lack of enthusiasm on the part of a reference can work against job candidates," Slabinski said. To ensure your references are ready, willing and able, it's important to check in with them each time you give their name to a potential employer, Slabinski advised. It's also important to let them know that your job hunting process may take awhile and may involve multiple calls from employers and recruiters, said Ryan Watson, a recruiter with the Philadelphia office of staffing firm Global Employment Solutions.

Fill Them In on the Job

It's not enough to tell those going to bat for you that a potential employer may be writing or calling. You have to give them some context, too. "I send them the job description, my view on how the interview process has gone up to that point and a current copy of my resume for referral," said Deanna Miller, a marketing professional who's been job hunting since April. You also need to give your references the name of the person who'll be calling them as well as details about the company and why you want the job, Slabinski said.

Then there's the matter of helping your references remember why they loved your work so much. "Get them to talk about their memory of you," said Nick Corcodilos, a headhunter based in Lebanon, N.J. who hosts AskTheHeadhunter.com, an online clearinghouse of information for job seekers.

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