Reading Time: 8 minutes

It’s always a great joy to give someone a job reference. It doesn’t happen often but it’s always a pleasure to see someone moving forward in their career, whatever that looks like to them. I recently was in a position to give two references and they were the opposite ends of the spectrum on how to seek a reference, so I thought I’d write about it a bit. As someone who has moved jobs a number of times and hired a fair number of people, I know I may take for granted this part of the career advancement process. Like so many things in librarianship, it takes planning.

Let’s start at the Human Resources end of the spectrum, which is not where you want to be. When I worked in a labor and employment law firm, the issue of references and how little should be provided would come up regularly. A reference that is given and negatively perceived created risk issues.

One prevailing approach is that you should really, particularly when an employee left under a cloud, limit yourself to the very basic facts: was employed, had a title, for how long. And some organizations may follow that rule in all cases. An HR-style reference isn’t really what anyone wants. Also, it’s likely that an HR person isn’t going to really know what you did or know your strengths. So it won’t be useful to the employer unless they’re primarily trying to determine whether you’re a liar about your work history or not.

It seems obvious that, if you are seeking a reference, you will want the reference to be a good one. The primary point of a reference is to undergird the positive presentation you are making with your cover letter, resume, and interviews. Since some jobs will require references, you want to make sure you maximize the benefit of this support.

As a reference giver, I do not want to be placed in a position of saying potentially negative things. It’s not even due to risk; I’d rather say nothing than do harm to a person’s career. If I am saying positive things based on facts and my experience, giving a reference is a low risk proposition. I realize that my perspective may be more expansive than what a lawyer would counsel. But a professional reference isn’t all about risk management. You have an opportunity to help a colleague.

I was surprised, then, when I got a request for a reference out of the blue recently. The request came from the hiring library and not the person I know. In that sort of situation, the safest bet is to fall back to the basics. If you don’t know the library context, or the job responsibilities, or even what the candidate said about themselves, you may end up undermining the candidate rather than reinforcing them. But this will inevitably end up with a less-than-full throated championing of the candidate.

And that, in a nutshell, is what you want to avoid. So now I will take you through the happier, other end of the spectrum with a second candidate I gave a reference for a few weeks ago. And their approach, I think, underscores the right way to do it.

Best Foot Forward

They are an early career librarian who’d worked in the same library but who I did not manage directly. They are an outstanding librarian. They checked in with me years ago about a reference. We have periodically (every couple of years) shared an email but otherwise haven’t had any regular contact. Then, when they were prospecting a job and were offered an interview, they let me know.

The very first thing they did was to refresh my commitment to giving them a reference by asking again. It’s a great way to check in with your potential reference and also confirm that they’re still open to being a reference. You can use this communication to ask for advice or refresh their memory. If they agree, then you can take the next step.

They told me the job title and the employer. They shared a job posting with me so I knew what the job would entail. They told me what they were going to emphasize in their interviews and, after the interview, what they wanted me to emphasize in my reference. As you can tell, these are multiple communications. From my perspective, you can’t help your reference too much.

They had a very tactical approach to their use of a reference which I thought was ideal. They wanted me to help them generally, but also very specifically reinforce certain skills and help to support their explanations of certain gaps, like things they hadn’t done. For example, if you haven’t managed people and you’re an early career librarian, it’s hardly surprising that you haven’t managed people in our flat hierarchy profession. If your reference reinforces that is not unusual, that can help (the person getting the reference may not know that unless they’re a librarian too).

In other words, they didn’t leave anything to chance. No surprised reference. No uncertainty about the role or the person’s appropriateness for it. No obstacle to me giving them an expansive, truthful, positive reference. And they were offered the job. The reference isn’t the reason they got the job, but it supported their overall effort rather than detracted from it.

Use Your Contacts

The first thing they did right was to start years in advance of the need. When you leave a role, it used to be that you would ask for a letter of reference. But better, I think, is to identify the people who might give you one in the future and let them know you’d like their support. Let them know while you are their colleague, if possible, and when your relationship is strongest.

This is useful in a couple of ways. First, you are creating professional bonds with colleagues. Even if your departure from a job isn’t a positive one—you’re leaving because you’re unhappy, they’re asking you to leave because they’re unhappy with you—you can still find a reference among your colleagues.

I think this may be unusual but I also tend to let my employer know as soon as I start interviewing that I’m looking for alternate work. Sometimes earlier, depending on the hiring manager. I’ve been told that it’s unusual but I’ve only heard anecdotes, not seen data. I’ve found (and believe) that it’s a good way to help the people who do hiring prepare and, if you need them as a reference, remember your departure as positively as possible. There appears to be a lot of gamesmanship in other work contexts that I have not seen exist in law libraries (seeking an outside job to get a raise at an existing one, for example) which may explain why other workplaces wouldn’t recommend it.

Also, it isn’t just about when you leave. If the person you would like a reference from is the one leaving, that’s a good time to engage them in a discussion about a future reference. In the old days, you might have asked for a letter (I still have a letter of reference written by my first law firm employer back in 1988!). But with email and professional jobs, all you need is a conversation.

It can be helpful to start early in creating a network of possible references. You never know where your career will take you. You never know when you’ll need references. I’d worked at the American Bar Association for a number of years and then moved on. And moved on again. And by that second move, none of the people I might have asked for a reference from at the ABA—the COO, CIO, CFO, direct supervisor—were there any longer. They had retired or otherwise professionally disappeared. So having a discussion about references throughout your career can be important in case suddenly a gap appears that is out of your control.

Help Them Help You

A potential reference should know you. That’s what the employer wants but it’s also what you want. You want someone who will be able to resurface warm feelings about who you are and how you work.

I choose people I like and trust. This has included peers as well as supervisors. If I’m at all leery of their ability to give a positive reinforcement to my candidacy, I’ll give them a miss. I’ve also asked people who didn’t supervise me directly but were higher in the organization and with whom I had close regular contact, so they had an impression of me.

When you are starting your job search, check in with them. Let them know what’s going on in your career and ask or remind them for a reference. My experience is that most people who you know and trust will be glad to give one for you. Be strategic, though. You may know a dozen people who will give you a reference, but only a few are in the work context you’re aiming for, or have the work experience you want to achieve yourself. Start with the people who are most likely going to reinforce your candidacy and leaven them with your greatest cheerleaders who work in other contexts. Ideally, those two groups will overlap.

Once you’ve caught an employer’s interest and have had a screening interview, let your references know you may need them. By this time, you should probably know whether your references will get an email or phone call or need to write a letter. Share this information so your reference can anticipate the effort they’ll need to expend.

Help them prepare for that call or email or letter. Tell them about the job and tell them why you are seeking it, and why you’ll be successful at it. They may remember you well enough but it doesn’t hurt to remind them. Give them your resume to refresh their memory on the things you’ve done that they may not be aware of, but that the potential employer will be.

The Point of References

As an employer, I’m not entirely convinced of the value of references. One that is well-prepared will only reinforce what I should already know from a resume, cover letter, and interview(s). It is too complicated—and risky to the individual being asked—but I would find it more useful to talk to a former subordinate of someone being hired as a manager than to speak to a reference selected by a manager.

I don’t see it as very helpful from a truth-telling perspective either. It is relatively easy to find out where someone worked. I believe that you could call every employer and get the HR-style reference (yes, worked here as an X from Y to Z). We also operate in a relatively small profession so finding publications or confirming work history isn’t as hard as it might be in some work contexts.

There’s also the “they’re just like us” aspect, which is that references are used to reinforce cultural fit. I have worked for non-profits, government, and a law school. Not all my employers would react the same to a single set of references. As I went through the prospecting process, I would think of references who were working in the same context as the role to help support my candidacy. A reference can help make a candidate “more like us.” It can also negatively make a candidate “just like us” by tapping into legacy or elite or network ties that are not relevant to the role or the work.

In theory, a reference will also help highlight interpersonal information, a bit like a 360 degree performance review. But I think you can pick up some of that by using a larger interviewing committee, if you have people to participate. I once interviewed a candidate for a management role and included both peers and people who would report to that role on the committee. When the candidate made their thoughts on the hierarchy of professional and paraprofessional staff (and who does or does not do certain things), staff on the committee were aware that we might have issues. I’m not convinced that a candidate-selected reference will highlight those sorts of issues as well as having the right people and the right questions during the interview.

Primed and Ready

As a reference, you know that, if you are called on, the person has gotten onto the decision-maker’s radar. I think it’s rare to be asked for a reference earlier than a screening interview. Once you’ve done your part, you can sit back and wait. I try to respond in kind to the job candidate. I let them know I was asked for a reference and that I provided one. If it was an email or phone call, I discuss the conversation that I had with the hiring person or committee (yes, sometimes you’re doing a mini interview as the reference). In particular, if it occurred, I’ll confirm that I was asked and talked about the specific things they asked me to be prepared to cover.

Then it’s fingers crossed and hope that all the references are good ones. At this point, it’s often a good chance that they will get the job. They have done the heavy lifting and you have helped them along. There may still be reasons they don’t take the job but I’m still glad to help them get to the point where they can make that choice themselves. Helping a colleague with a reference is part of the network professionals create in their careers.