How useful are references?

Potential employers would like to know who they might be hiring and will ask for references. That’s standard practice in Europe. Anyone would like to know if the person they’re about to hire really is as good as he/she says. What better way than to ask a former employer, friends or colleagues?

However it is a very difficult and time consuming task to work out whether the recommendations given are true. Many employers have a habit of giving a good reference to employees whom they are keen on leaving. You often have to read between the lines to work out what they really mean. Companies use platitudes to describe former employees. You often see statements such as: “A pleasure to work with”, “Great communicator”, “He did a fantastic job”, etc. However well intended they might be, they are used so often that these kind of references have lost their meaning.

Services such as LinkedIn are trying to tackle this problem by offering “Recommendations”. Given the viral nature of the service there is a real danger this might be abused and have the opposite effect. We have all linked to people we barely know or not at all, just to build up an interesting list of connections. If you receive a recommendation from one of those connections, a recruiter might ask you what your relation with that person was. Did you actually work with them? How much was that person involved in your work?

If you can not answer that they might question all your references. So, be careful with recommendations, especially when you get them online.

The best way to go about this is to use references from real people you really worked with. Let them describe something you really achieved, rather than resorting to platitudes. You could get them to describe something like:

  • What were your key strengths (give some examples)
  • What did they like about working with you the most
  • How would they describe you
  • What you achieved at work, how you did this and how they were involved.

By sticking to real examples, you will be more credible and people will value your references. Social media is often really useful, but people do not realise yet that it can potentially damage your reputation by all the nonsense put out there.

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