A former colleague called me last week to inquire about someone who used to work at Sara Lee some 20 years ago. I didn’t remember the person at first, but I eventually determined the individual had since gotten married and changed her name. Still, I wasn’t able to give a compelling recommendation since much had surely happened in the past two decades since we last worked together.
Two days after I provided the lackluster reference, I received a LinkedIn message from the applicant advising me that I might get a call about a job she was seeking. I replied that I already was interviewed and I did my best to recount her work from many years ago. When she claimed to be too busy to give a more timely heads up to me or the other references, I seized upon the “education opportunity” and suggested these four basic requirements of proper reference protocol:
Pick Best Possible References. Professional references should be familiar with your most recent work. Never go back more than two jobs or over 10 years unless you are asked to provide a personal reference who knows you well. Don’t wait until asked to think about your best references. You should have a stable of more than three so you can select the ones that best suit certain positions or the culture of the organization where you are interviewing.
Ask Permission. Never assume someone will accept reference check calls. In addition to your email or phone request, be sure to include your resume and include a bit of small talk–especially if you’ve been out-of-touch for several years.
Provide Talking Points. After getting permission to use someone for a reference, quickly pass along three support points for the key messages you hope he or she will convey. You might even extend it to include a response to the proverbial question: “What do you feel she could improve upon?”
Follow Up. Even if you don’t land the job, be sure to follow up with your references. This will ensure your ability to continue receiving positive references. (I still haven’t heard if the above individual landed the job).