How to give a great reference

Work Wisdom

How to give a great reference

At some point in your career, you might be asked to provide a reference. Most of the time, references are associated with candidates for a job. But you also can be asked for references for board positions, certain volunteer roles, or running for elected office.

Being asked to provide a reference is considered an honor and a big responsibility. The person making the request thinks highly of you, feels you have a good relationship and believes you’re going to say good things about the person.

But giving a great reference takes a little forethought. Here are six steps to consider:

  1. If this is for a current or former employee, understand your company policy. Many organizations have policies about managers and supervisors providing references for current and former employees. Many say you just can’t do it. So, before you say “yes” to a request, make sure you know the company policy. If you can’t find it in a handbook or policy manual, ask HR for the company guidelines.
  2. Schedule time to do it. Many references today are completed online, but occasionally you’ll receive a phone call. No one should ask you to drop everything and complete a reference. If you get a call, you can simply say, “I’m in the middle of something and would like to give you my complete attention. Can we talk at (insert time here)?” Before the call, jot down some key points so you have them handy.
  3. Be factual. It’s not necessary (or desirable) to embellish a candidate’s knowledge or skills. No one’s asking for that. The expectation is you’ll provide authentic and factual information. If you don’t know something about a candidate, don’t make it up. Just let the person making the request know your relationship with the candidate didn’t give you that exposure or insight. Not being fully truthful can hurt your reputation as well as the candidate’s.
  4. Back it up with stories. This is what separates good references from great ones. Once you provide that factual information in #3, tell a story that brings it to life. For example, if you say someone has great customer service skills, tell a story that shows how he or she handled a customer service situation. This is the type of information that can set the candidate apart from the crowd.
  5. Think of a weakness. You know you’re going to get asked this question, so get prepared before the call. You might talk with the candidate first to let the person know what you plan to say. That way there are no surprises. In thinking about an answer, see if there’s a weakness the candidate eventually overcame and turned into a strength. That would cover weaknesses, stories (#3) and factual information (#2).
  6. Debrief with the candidate. Speaking of the candidate, once you finish your call (or online interview), take a moment to follow up with the candidate. Let the person know you’ve been contacted and what you said. The candidate will appreciate knowing this part of the process is completed. It also gives the candidate an opportunity to thank you for your comments.

Giving a great reference can be a huge boost for another person. When you look back on your own career, think about the great references other people have given about you — and be the kind of person who can pay that forward for someone else.

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