Reader Question: How to Be a Great Reference

A reader asks:

A former coworker reached out to me via LinkedIn recently to ask if I’d be willing to serve as a reference for him during his job search. He is leaving the company where I used to work in a role that was semi-managerial. He was a great coworker and valuable member of our team, so I agreed, but I’m not sure what I need to do to be prepared to give him the reference he deserves.

I’ve never been asked to serve as a reference before, so I honestly don’t know what I just agreed to and what the most professional way to approach this is. Most of the advice I’ve seen is regarding people for whom you don’t feel comfortable giving a good reference. Any tips you could provide on what to be sure to mention or avoid and how to stay within the boundaries of professional (rather than personal) comments would be great.

Well, first, good for you for thinking about this in advance rather than just winging it once you get the reference call.  A lot of references don’t bother to prepare, and as a result don’t give the information that could most help the person they’re recommending.  Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re called upon to be a reference:

Spend a few minutes preparing before you get the call.

The best thing that you can do is to take a few minutes to think about what made this colleague good at his job. Why did you enjoy working with him? What about him stood out? What did he achieve during his time there? What is he strongest at? And then, on the opposite side, what could he work on improving in? What types of jobs would he not be a good fit for?

You don’t need to spend more than a few minutes thinking this through, but the mere act of doing it will help you surface pertinent information when a reference-checker calls you. And if you’re someone who likes to have notes, don’t be shy about making a few notes for yourself either.

Be specific and stay focused on work.

Then, when you get the reference call, you’ll be prepared to talk. Most reference-checkers will have a prepared list of questions to ask you, so don’t worry that you’ll be expected to deliver a monologue. You’ll simply respond to the person’s questions, making sure to emphasize your former colleague’s strengths. Keep your answers focused on his work life; it’s fine to comment on his work, his attitude at work, and his relations with managers coworkers, but not on things related to his health or personal life.

And the more specific you can be in your answers, the better. “John was great to work with” is nice to hear, but “John never missed a deadline, went out of his way to ensure his work was flawless and free of errors, and was one of the most creative people on our staff when it came to generating workable ideas to increase revenue” is much more useful.

Pay attention to your tone.

Also keep in mind that the reference-checker is going to be paying attention to how enthusiastic you are. A lot of information can be conveyed through your tone, and if you really think highly of this colleague, make sure that your tone conveys it. Don’t hesitate to be openly enthusiastic if that reflects how you really feel. There’s a big difference between “John would be welcome to reapply with us in the future” and “I would move heaven and earth to hire John back again if I could.” If the latter is closer to how you feel, say so! This isn’t the time to be circumspect.

On the other hand, if your assessment of is more lukewarm than that, don’t gush effusively just because you think you’re supposed to. The value of references isn’t just that they help employers make good hires (although they do); it’s also that they help job candidates end up in roles that are the best match for them. So be open and honest, and you’ll have done your job well.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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