Ask the Headhunter: Here’s how to ask someone to be your job reference
In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.
Question: There’s no delicate way to put this. My best references died recently. How should I deal with that when applying for a job?
Nick Corcodilos: I’m sorry to hear it, but it’s actually a problem we headhunters encounter from time to time. There’s only one solution: new references.
Even if you’ve always used a few really good references that you trust, you probably have others. References are everywhere, if you look.
Consider people who worked in your department or in related departments. Your best advocates don’t need to be your ex-boss or even someone you worked with directly. For example, if you’re an engineer, there are probably people in your old employer’s manufacturing, quality and sales departments who can probably speak about you.
Who else saw the work you were doing? I don’t mean just other employees — but perhaps customers, vendors and consultants who worked with your company. Anyone you’ve done work with can speak up for you. But you have to ask them.
Call, don’t email.
Call them. Don’t send an email request. References are a personal favor, so show respect. Demonstrate that you’re willing to ask personally.
Don’t start by asking them to be references. Call to catch up. Reminisce. Try to get them to talk about their memories of when you worked together.
How to say it
“Hey, remember the X project we both worked on… What did you think of how it turned out?”
Then lead them into a discussion about other work you did together. Get them to talk about it. There’s the beginning of a reference.
I’m not suggesting that you should be sneaky. Be honest. But set the stage before you make your request. Finding out what they remember about working with you is the best way to do this. Then you can easily suggest:
I wanted to be sure you have some recollections of working together. Now I’d like to ask you a favor. Would you be willing to say what you told me to an employer I’m interviewing with? They asked for a reference, not much more than what you just discussed with me.
Here’s the magic
We all know people who know our work. You probably have more potential references than you realize, so make a list and contact them. But help them help you.
Helping people talk about your work and past performance helps them formulate what they’d say later as references. It’s your job to help them talk about it. Then, when you ask them to be a reference, they feel like they’ve got something to say. (See “Don’t provide references, LAUNCH them.”)
Helping people remember is like priming a pump. You help them find the phrases they need to talk about you to an employer. Just do it honestly. And remember: If they can be a reference for you, you can probably be a reference for them. Just don’t offer to return this favor as an inducement — that’s not right.
(If you’re an employer, see “References: How employers bungle a competitive edge.”)
Dear Readers: How would you advise this reader? How do you line up your references?
Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”
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