… the HR Minion. Because even minions have opinions. And giggles.

What is a professional reference?


Over the years I’ve done a 360 on how I feel about references. When I first started out in HR, I was operating under the mindset that you had to have them because they were critical to finding the right person. As I got deeper in HR, and maybe a little jaded, I realized that 98% of the references I got were positive so what was the point of even getting them? But now, I have come to realize that it’s not the actual reference itself that is valuable, it’s everything else about the process that tells you what you need to know about a candidate.

I often learn more about a candidate by looking at what they consider “Professional References” than anything else. Who they include, or don’t include, on their list of references can tell me how organized they are, how well they network, if they are introverted, if they maintained good relationships with past employers and co-workers, and how professional they really are.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this point is to define what is, and is not, a good professional reference.

A good professional reference:
– Is a former boss or co-worker that can speak intelligently and enthusiastically about your work accomplishments, behavior, and character.
– In the case of a recent graduate, this person is a teacher/mentor/adviser that can speak intelligently and enthusiastically about your academic accomplishments, behavior, and character.
– Is someone that you still remain in contact with on a semi frequent basis, even if only to check in and see how they are doing.
– Is someone who knows you list them as a reference and is glad to be of help when needed.
– Is someone who genuinely believes all the nice things they say about you.
– Is someone who would love to work with you again if given the chance.
– Is someone who would love to hire you given the chance.
– Is someone who hears you have applied with a company they have connections at and proactively offers up a positive reference for you without even being asked. (This is rare but has happened)

Now, a bad professional reference is:
– A family member, even if you have worked with them before.
– A family friend or friend of your parents, even if they have known you your whole life. The only exception would be if you have worked with or for this person in a professional capacity.
– Is someone who gives you a lukewarm reference, ie. they don’t say anything negative about you but they aren’t really excited about helping you out either and so they just say the bare minimum to get the recruiter off the phone.
– Is anyone who doesn’t know you list them as a reference and are thus unprepared when they get asked for one.
– Is a former boss who is unable to provide a reference due to company policy and can only provide employment verification information (dates employed, title, etc.).
– Is no one, meaning you can’t put together a list of 3 people to serve as professional references.
– Is anyone you haven’t spoken to in so long that it takes them a minute before they remember you.
– Is someone who feels indifferently towards you or, while they may think you are a nice person, they would never want to work with or hire you again.

Obviously, someone who can provide 3 solid, good professional references demonstrates that they are prepared, actively networking, and the actual references I get should confirm that. But if all I get are personal (Family or friends) references and lukewarm references, if I get them at all, I am going to wonder if this is the person we want in our company.

So do yourself a favor and take a look at those people you list under references. Are you sure that you are aren’t hurting your chances before you have even applied for a job?

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