Conversation with a Reference  


Congratulations, you’ve made it to the third-tier interviews, and the hiring manager wants to check your professional references.  Have you ever wondered how the conversation goes when your potential employer calls your former supervisor to discuss…you?   A reference follow-up call can happen anywhere – in an elevator in Seattle, or on vacation in the middle of a desert.  Here is a look at how a conversation might go between the hiring manager and Mr. Boss, your reference, and some ways that you can lay the groundwork for a glowing recommendation:

“Mr. Boss, I received your name as a reference from Nancy New, who is applying for an accounting job at our firm.  What is your connection to Ms. New?”  [At this point, Mr. Boss could be scouring his mind for details about Ms. New, since he gives out lots of recommendations and is currently standing in a noisy lunch line].

Your task:  Be memorable!  Only request recent references from those who are familiar with you and your work history so that when the call comes, they will be prepared to wax eloquent.   Omit friends, equal co-workers, or family members, who won’t seem as credible as a work supervisor.  Since Mr. Boss has already given permission to act as your reference, he is excited and ready to share your work story when the call comes.

“Could you tell me about Ms. New’s strengths as an employee?  Is she a hard worker?  Can you describe any weaknesses that we should consider?”

Your task:   Cultivate a business mentorship with at least one of your references.  The strengths and weaknesses questions are always asked in a reference interview.  Because Mr. Boss is your business mentor, he can be honest about any weaknesses you might have had, while emphasizing strengths that counteract them, like your willingness to ask for help, the determination in problem-solving, and ability to take criticism.  Be sure to update your resume and inform your references about any new training you might have had since you last worked for them.

“Mr. Boss, I’d like to go over some of the accomplishments Ms. New describes in her resume.” 

Your task:  Be honest about your abilities and work history.  It is a well-known fact that people frequently exaggerate and even lie on their resumes.  Don’t risk putting Mr. Boss in an awkward situation when it turns out he might have to lie to cover something you said you did when you were working for him.  Be honest when you describe your achievements and skills in your interview and on your resume.  Often employers are looking for personal characteristics like the ability to learn, passion, and commitment, which are transferable to a variety of positions.

The key to reference connections who will go the extra mile to help you succeed is to keep the lines of communication open.  As you move up the interview ladder, alert them that they may receive a call. Describe the position you are applying for and tell them why you feel you are qualified.  Once the interview is over, send a written note of thanks, along with an update on the outcome.  If you can, offer to return the favor.  Having a team of supporters who can add credibility to your work story, will boost your chances of hearing: “Ms. New, you’re hired!”

Additional information about building your reference library:

Doyle, Alison. (2017, October 2). Sample Letters and Email Messages Asking for a Reference. The Balance.

Fallon, Nicole. (2015, July 16). Want a Professional Reference?  How to Ask and What to Expect. Business News Daily.

Pushkal, Anne. (n.d.). The Right (and Wrong) Way to Ask Someone to be a Reference.  The Muse.