If you’re working freelance you may be asked for a reference as you explore new work possibilities.
In the application form/CV and the interview you will have a certain level of control to ensure that you include evidence and potential which relates to the specific role and organisation. References are more complex. So have you trained your referees?
Most people put down their line manager (or equivalent) and two other people who they think would be good. An even more productive use of this aspect of your application is, as Covey says, ‘to begin with the end in mind’.
- For this role what do I want/need to be covered in my references?
- Therefore who do I need to ask to be my referee?
Requests for references will arrive in a variety of forms. They take time and energy. Do you want your referee to answer the questions they are asked? Or do you want them to do even more?
- What particular aspect do you want this referee to comment on in this application?
- How are you going to ask them to do that?
- How will you keep them up to date with your skills and experience NOW?
- And how will you thank them for putting in the effort and time needed to write something useful?
This is not influencing your referees and getting them to skew what they say about you. The content is still entirely with them. But unless you make clear both the context and any specific insight which you know they have, they may get overlooked. This will mean that you might be applying for several similar jobs and use slightly different referees each time.
Tell your referee why you’ve named them for this particular job. Ask them to particularly comment on that aspect, as well as answering the questions on the form.
We were asked by a Government Agency for a reference from a piece of work we had done with teams in transition.
The best placed person to comment on that was the Principal of a Higher Education Training College where we had done similar work. The reference needed
- to show that we were technically able to carry out such an intervention
- to talk about outcomes.
That was the basic need. But we were asking this particular individual because
- CONTEXT: he would be able to comment on our ability to work with highly intelligent people
- VOICE: he could speak in the language of their organisational culture (government)
If you think that a reference isn’t going to be helpful you will need to find another referee who will directly comment on what you think will be the weakness in the first reference.
If you think that your referee is going to be influenced by the fact that you don’t have a productive working relationship together, you will need your second reference to be someone who will address that. You cannot tell them what to say, but you can ask them to especially comment on your working relationship and what you have done to try and improve it.
In these situations, you will need the second referee to comment on the same context as the first referee but from a different, perhaps more positive, perspective. In this case it is important that the second referee can comment on their knowledge of you in your current work situation. A reference about your competency from a totally different workplace can be useful, but will not moderate a bad reference from your line manager.
If there has been a breakdown in a relationship, what the second referee can say about the skills and experience and competence you have used to deal with that difficulty is critical. Learning from failure is a strength and many high-level jobs will want to answer questions about your ability to deal with adversity and diversity.
So, for this role,
- who are the referees who can comment most effectively on my competency and potential
- how do I tell them precisely the reason I’ve asked them to be a referee for this role?
- how do I help my referees to understand enough about the job spec and the person spec to contextualise their reference?