Cultivating Strong References in a 'Reputation Economy'

Seven Ways to Protect Yourself Against Dubious Referrals

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Megan Slabinski
Megan Slabinski

In the current recession, your clients may change, your duties could shift and your job might go away, but one thing that's permanently attached to you is your professional reputation.

A job hunt, for better or worse, puts your reputation in the spotlight. Those who hold a positive impression will likely recommend you to their network of contacts and offer to serve as references.

On the other hand, even minor flaws may become apparent as you search for work. Your former manager may not return your calls, for instance, or someone you approach as a potential reference may decline to speak on your behalf.

Perhaps the most common scenario is this: Someone who you ask for a recommendation provides a less-than-glowing review.

To protect yourself from dubious referrals, it's wise to actively develop a solid list of professional references who can speak persuasively about your strengths.

Following are seven tips that can help you do so:

1. Find the voice of authority.
Most hiring managers want to speak to your former managers. If you didn't see eye-to-eye with a previous supervisor, briefly explain the situation during the interview and offer up other past managers who can attest to your skills and abilities. (Because your prior managers make ideal references, be sure to keep in touch with them if you part on amicable terms. E-mailing an article of interest every once in a while is an unobtrusive way to do so.)

2. Identify your biggest fans.
Sites such as LinkedIn enable people to post recommendations about each other. Reach out to your contacts and politely request referrals. Their words can give you a good sense of just how enthusiastic they are about you: Those who respond quickly and provide the strongest recommendations are excellent reference sources. When making these types of requests, be sure to thank your contacts. Also, return the favor by providing thoughtful, well-written recommendations for those in your network.

3. Offer variety.
Seek out references from former vendors, clients, peers and direct reports, in addition to prior bosses. If you're interviewing for a role that entails significant management responsibilities, it can be especially valuable to have someone you've supervised speak to your strengths as a leader.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Slabinski is executive director of The Creative Group, a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and web professionals with a variety of firms on a project and full-time basis.

4. Provide a few extras.
When short-staffed, many hiring managers are pressured to move quickly, and if your contacts are unavailable, you may miss out on the job offer. Consider providing more references than are requested.

5. Make it easy on the hiring manager.
Provide clear contact information, including names, titles, daytime telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, for your references along with a brief explanation of the nature of your relationship with each person. It's also helpful to note the best times to reach your contacts.

6. Avoid any surprises.
Each time you submit a person's name to a prospective employer, let your contact know so he or she is well-prepared. Provide them with an updated copy of your resume, and describe the company and position you have applied for, as well as the name of the person who might be calling them. Hiring managers can usually sense when a reference is caught off-guard, and it may cause them to question your planning or communication ability.

7. Express appreciation.
Always thank those who offer to speak on your behalf -- even if they aren't contacted by hiring managers. Also, keep them updated on the status of your job search. Once you are hired, use handwritten notes to once again thank your references for their assistance.

The most important career move you can make is to develop a positive reputation, both by producing strong work and treating people well. If you do those things and follow these tips, you should have no trouble creating a list of people who will heartily recommend you.

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