At some point in your participation in a selection process, assuming you get this far, they are going to ask you for references. Most people think that when they choose their references, they should choose people who will say “Jane is great”. Actually, even if they said “Jane is great, awesome, etc.” with 1000 variations, you would actually fail the reference. Because the point of a reference is not for them to tell the hiring manager you’re great, but rather to give them concrete examples that demonstrate you meet the various criteria they’re assessing.
Let’s delve a bit more deeply. If you think about the four main things in the Statement of Merit (i.e., experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability), references are mainly about personal suitability factors. Judgement, leadership, interpersonal skills, initiative…some of them may have been tested previously, some may not; some may have only been tested in previous stages, some may be tested in multiple stages, some may only be tested through references. It varies from process to process, but most are tested through references.
Jumping ahead a bit, when you give the names, here is what is going to happen with those names. Let’s say for example it asks for three references for you. The HR person is going to get those names, and they are going to send those three people an email to say “Good afternoon, Mr. Doe. Candidate X is participating in a selection process with us for an [PM-3/EC-7/AS-4/CR-1/CS-1/etc.] position and has provided your name as a potential reference. We are accessing four criteria through our reference stage, and we have provided the attached questionnaire to help us rate their previous performance. Please fill out the questionnaire in writing or we can arrange to call and discuss the questions orally if you prefer. We are hoping to wrap up everyone’s references by such and such a date and hope you will be able to complete it before that time. In the first part of the questionnaire, it asks you to identify your position, how and when you knew the candidate, and in what capacity.”
There are some more bells and whistles but that’s about it…it says “we’re accessing A, B, C, and D”, tell us how you know the candidate and then answer the questions on A, B, C and D. When your reference turns to Question A, perhaps on initiative, they are going to be asked questions that look a lot like the experience questions you may have seen in the interview. “Please describe a situation when the candidate demonstrated initiative, including their role and what actions they took.” In other words, “Tell us of a time when…”.
Once the HR person gets the questionnaire back or they do a phone interview, they (or the hiring manager) reviews the details provided and assigns a mark. This is very important. Your reference is NOT the one assigning the mark of 4/5 or 8/10 (i.e., “she’s great, 10/10”!); they are providing details to the hiring manager so the hiring manager can access those details and grade your performance (i.e., “she sounds pretty good, good examples, 8/10”). Hiring managers have to do the scoring, not the reference. Which means the hiring manager needs a reference that is detailed enough for them to make such a scoring decision.
What does this mean for you? It means that you have to choose references that:
- WILL provide details when asked; and,
- CAN provide those details.
Both have implications for what you have to do as the candidate. So let’s break that down a bit further.
Someone who WILL provide details
Not every reference is created equal for personality. Have you ever had a conversation with someone where it seemed like you were pulling teeth to get them to tell you anything?
How are you today?
What did you do on the weekend?
How is that big project going?
How is that junior staff doing on your team?
This is NOT the type of person you want giving you a reference. You want someone who responds to open-ended questions with more than a couple of words. If they are asked pointed questions, usually anyone will respond with details. If they are asked open-ended questions, you need to make sure the person will be expansive with their answers, they will respond in detail, they will answer the question in a way that provides enough examples for the hiring manager to be able to grade your abilities in that area.
I hesitate to give a blanket statement to say avoid all Type A, short, terse people as references, as often these are high-flying managers or directors too. Impressive even. But it is almost like you are hiring them to be your spokesperson on the competition, and you want to know they will take the time to be thoughtful and do it properly, not slap together three words and move on. Because if they do a crappy job on your reference, if they don’t give enough details, the hiring manager will rate you low and you won’t pass. Because the hiring manager won’t have enough evidence of your performance to rate you high enough to pass.
A colleague of mine was in a development program. Her manager was not one to respond well to open-ended questions, and when she did the evaluation of my friend, she wrote basic information — yes, no, fine, good, etc. with short to no examples to back any of it up. When they followed up (which they don’t have to do, but they did) to ask for more info, the manager did the same thing, nothing expansive. And without more details to justify a higher score, my friend didn’t get her promotion for another six months. Because her reference was not a good fit for those types of questions. Most experienced managers know how they have to answer reference questions because they have been the one asking the questions in other processes, and therefore know what info they need, but not always.
Choose your references wisely. If you were hiring a spokesperson to prove you’re ready for a promotion, is that the reference you would choose to speak on your behalf?
Someone who CAN provide details
While it is important to choose someone who WILL provide details when asked, it is even more important that they be someone who CAN provide details, who knows your work well enough to do that type of reference.
Usually this is someone who knows you well enough and for a sufficient period of time (preferably as your direct supervisor) to discuss your performance in detail. Normally, this is for a minimum of six months. A year or two is obviously better, not only for their own credibility, but also for having the likelihood of several examples to choose from as evidence in their response.
Let me give you an example where I ticked all the boxes above, and it almost burned me. I used to work in a division where we had no director, just directly reporting to a Director General. EX-03 level, if you’re interested. As part of a huge interdepartmental initiative, he was made co-chair of a working group. And as a PM-03, I became his officer on the project, managing all aspects of the workplan and content. I hesitate to describe him as the figurehead, as he gave more guidance than that, but I was the lead for the file. I did everything for the day-to-day project, kept everybody moving along and giving us inputs, and wrote the final report and recommendations for the group. It was almost 80% of my job and it culminated in a series of recommendations to PCO and the larger group that were adopted. Everybody was happy, thanks all around, etc.
Fast forward three years, I’m up for a competition, he’s willing to be one of my references, and since he wasn’t managing me directly anymore (he had changed directorates), I sent him a quick little summary of some of my past projects as a little memory-jogger. I wasn’t trying to script him, but I did want to nudge him with some good examples of things I had done. Top of my list was this big interdepartmental group. And he replied to say, “Thanks, very helpful, I had forgotten about that working group.”
I was stunned. I *killed* myself for almost 18 months on that project, making it so he didn’t have to do much more than chair the meetings, and it was a great project for me, plus great experience for the competition. He did his part, I did mine. But he didn’t even remember it enough to mention in a reference? As I said, I was stunned. Not hurt, that’s not what I’m talking about…I’m talking about stunned that I assumed that since he thought I was amazing and gave me glowing reviews, that he would have multiple examples of my work to mention, and yet he didn’t / couldn’t remember my biggest file.
Stunned, one of those “Are you freaking kidding me?” moments. At the time, I promised myself that I would never do that with MY staff, I would remember them better than that, smug little me. Which was warm and comforting right up until I was a manager myself, and a co-op student contacted me two years after she reported to someone in my team, wanted a reference, and I had to stop and think, “What did she work on that summer?”. I remembered her, I remembered she was good, sure, but I couldn’t have answered details about her projects to give good examples for a detailed / quality reference.
So let me go back to that moment. After I thought about it, I realized that, of course, he couldn’t remember. I was a PM-03, one of eight officers working for him, most of the others with much bigger files, and he only needed to chair the meetings, not manage it day-to-day. And when it was over, we moved on to other files. Plus he had had probably another 20 staff in total over the subsequent 3 year period. He remembered I was good, but he didn’t have the details at his fingertips. Maybe he would have remembered on his own, maybe not. But I’m sure glad I sent the prep information. Which I now do for ALL my references, just in case.
Equally, I ask for the same when I’m acting as a reference for someone. You did the prep work for this competition, you know what they are looking for, not me. For example, maybe you did a computer project and a finance project for me. On the reference, they might ask me about a project you managed for me, maybe demonstrating initiative, and since I remember the computer project really well, I might mention that one. However, if there’s a finance component to the job, you might prefer I use that one instead. The only way I’ll know, or at least consider the other project, is if you remind me of both of them. If I’m going to be your spokesperson, helping me prepare will help you succeed.
However, what you absolutely cannot do is try to script your references with what to say, because they’re the one providing the reference, not you. But you CAN subtly nudge your references towards better examples. How do you do that? You do it by doing some preparation for them ahead of time.
Here’s what I do with my references.
A. First and foremost, I consider which potential references will respond thoughtfully with details.
B. In advance of a specific competition, I ask them in general if they are willing to be a reference. Some people have what they consider to be a fantastic disruption in this area, widely touted as a breakthrough in the industry — they suggest asking your references what they’ll say about you. I think it is both brilliant and disruptive, but I would never do it. I feel you are asking them for a favour in doing the reference, and then you put them on the spot to tell you their opinion of you. If they hedge, you know not to use them, sure; but even if they like you, and would say good things, you might be making them really uncomfortable by asking them direct. And I can tell in the next step if it’s positive anyway.
C. At the time of a competition, I re-confirm with them their continued willingness, and mention the specific context. If they shy away for ANY reason (too busy, whatever), I drop them for that competition. Maybe they ARE too busy, maybe they didn’t really think you were that good, maybe they don’t think you are ready for the promotion…doesn’t matter the reason, you want people who are ready, willing and able to give you a good reference. If they aren’t willing, move on as quick as you can. Don’t make it a “thing”, just let it go. You don’t even have to tell them you’re NOT listing them, just leave them off the list when you submit. Choose somebody else.
D. Assuming they agree, I send them an email before they ever get a questionnaire saying:
- Thank you for agreeing to be a reference for this process;
- I have applied for the position of X at level Y in area Z (this gives them the context of what you’re applying for);
- I am attaching my cover letter for info (they likely won’t read it);
- I am also attaching my resume, and you’ll see my time with you is summarized on page 2 (or you could just paste it in the email…this gives them some good memory joggers of all the things you did with them); and,
- The reference is likely to focus on these personal suitability factors (* or if you know what is left to be covered, you can say it more specifically, or even ask the process people what the references will be asked to rate); and,
- Here are some examples I’ve been using in the competition that you may want to draw upon when you respond to the reference (and list a few key examples, no real details, mostly projects or files) for each of the factors they’ll have to respond to in the reference.
Note that you want to keep this as informal as possible…kind of like “Here’s some info, if you want it, if it’s helpful or useful”. You have to make sure they don’t feel like you’re turning them into a puppet or a mouthpiece, that you aren’t totally scripting what they’re going to say. Which of course you totally ARE trying to do without looking like you are. The goal is subtly nudging, not psychologically shoving.
And it works so well that now, if someone asks me to be a reference, I tell them, “Sure, but please send me your resume and any examples you think it could be good to mention if/when I get a reference.” It’s still my choice which ones and what I’m going to say, sure, but I might as well have you do some of the work.
And yes, I do this EVEN WHEN I’m still working for them or they’re working for me right now. You’re the one who knows best what makes a good example for the job you are applying for, and so you might as well suggest the best ones you have to suggest.
E. Write them a thank you note afterwards. Most people just do it by email, although it stands out more if you do it with a paper card. And do it whether you make it through the competition or not. Those questionnaires can take me an hour or more to fill out with the proper level of information and detail. It’s like I’m going through an interview myself, on your behalf. You can, sometimes, also include an update on how it went, etc., just so your former managers know where you’re at in your career management.
But what about…
So that’s the basic outline, and you see the steps for choosing and prepping your references. For most of the chapters, I stop at this point in a description of the process. But on references, there are some basic questions that immediately get asked every time I do a presentation in this area, so I might as well address them now.
The second-most popular question I get asked about references is from people trying to gauge their progress / success in the process. For example, “Hi Paul, I did my interview and I found out today I passed because they asked for my references, yay!”. Except that isn’t necessarily what that means. Or they ask more pointedly, “Hey Paul, if I get asked for refs, does that mean…”? No, it doesn’t mean that. Let me explain.
References are generally sought at one of three stages — at the time of a written exam, at the time of an interview, or after an interview. Once you realize that, you can see that when they ask you doesn’t really tell you anything. If they ask at the written exam, they haven’t even assessed you yet, so it means nothing. If they ask at the interview, again, it means nothing. Where people get tripped up is when they have finished the interview, and they get a subsequent request for interviews. And think, “That must mean something, right?”. It does mean SOMETHING, but not necessarily what you think.
Prior to 2005, competitions were done fairly linearly. Apply. Write. Interview. References. Language. Security. And most people didn’t get to do the next step if they didn’t pass the previous. So if you got asked for references, it meant that you passed the previous round almost 90% of the time. Maybe even 95% of the time.
But after about 2010 or so, under the new systems and techniques, HR people realized that references take TIME. So, while it costs money to send them out to lots of people, it is cheaper for the hiring manager to have the references done for some people who might fail another stage than to wait until the end and be delayed in hiring someone because one person’s references are taking FOREVER. So the standard HR advice is to ask for references as soon as possible to help them get that part of the process going. Equally, some legal advisors actually tell HR to complete the references for anyone who passes the written too since if they challenge the interview (i.e. appeal), it is good to have the files complete and know what is at stake in the appeal (i.e., if they know you failed the references, it helps in the rejection to say you failed more than one element rather than a single one). Either way, for process or legal reasons, HR is asking for references often before the interviews are scored (or as I noted above, even before the interviews happen!). So if you finish an interview, and a couple of weeks later they ask for references, the only thing it means is that they’re continuing the process. It doesn’t mean you passed the previous stage.
On a personal note, I feel asking at the written exam stage is too soon, but since references can be checked in parallel with other processes, some HR groups ask for it earlier. I prefer to ask after the interview and only check those of the people who pass the interview. But that’s just me.
The most popular question, and the most tricky, is actually several questions in one and applies to providing a name when you have a problem with your current manager. The multiple forms are as follows:
a. Hate my manager / my manager hates me, but they asked for the current manager;
b. I haven’t told my current manager yet that I’m looking;
c. My current manager has only managed me for 2 months;
d. My manager died / retired / moved to Africa;
The list goes on and on. But what it really asks, very simply, is “What do I do if I don’t want to or can’t list my current manager?”
Let’s start with the easy one. If your manager doesn’t know you’re looking, you are digging your own grave. You don’t need to say “I’m trying to get the heck out of here”, but you can mention, certainly in annual performance reviews, that you would be open to new opportunities, promotions, etc. and you intend to participate in comps in the future if something interests you. More general, less specific. While many people worry about vindictive bosses, my reaction is more pointed…if you think they’re going to be upset if they find out you’re participating in processes, how upset are they likely to be when you come to them at the reference stage and they find out then or even worse, if someone mentions to them you’re in a comp they’re running and you haven’t even told them? You can downplay it as practice for future comps, seeing how you do, getting more experience, etc., but people have ruined relationships with GOOD bosses by having them totally surprised at the end. Tell them early. If you didn’t, tell them now (and if you have to, downplay that you did it for practice, didn’t think you would make it, etc.).
Now for the hard one. If you have a conflict with your manager, you have three choices if the process asks for your current manager. To be blunt, none of them are good. First, if you can think it will be “okay”, do nothing, provide the name, let them assess you (i.e. expecting a fair reference), and leave it at that. Second, you can provide the name, but tell the HR people that you have a conflictual relationship with your current manager, and suggesting another name that you think provides a fairer assessment (preferably the previous manager). By telling the HR people, they will likely do an extra reference and average the scores. Because if you get screened out, and you appeal, they’re on the hook — they knew there was a potential issue with your current manager, and they did nothing to mitigate it. Third, you can ask your manager’s boss if you can list them instead if you think they will be fairer in the assessment. As a potential aside, I will also note that if you have a problem with your current manager, your best option may be to first do a lateral to another area before participating in a formal comp. Comps always do formal references, while laterals are more likely to do more informal ones (and while they will still want to talk to your current supervisor, it usually isn’t their sole method).
If your current manager has only managed you for 2 months, or really anything less than 6, almost all HR people will let you list your previous manager. Just tell them why (short duration) and they will let you list someone else because the tribunals have ruled that anyone managing you for less than 6 months is generally not in a good enough position to accurately assess your performance. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s about the norm. From 6 to 12 months, often HR will add another reference to your list (i.e., 4 instead of 3 people).
As a variation on that question, I frequently hear from people who say they have had four different managers in two years in the same division. In other words, the person hasn’t changed jobs, but their manager’s cubicle looks like it should have a revolving door. This was a huge issue back in the staff cuts in 2010/11. Lost of people needed assessments done, including references, and had NO ONE who had managed them for six months straight. You also frequently see it show up in HR grievances and appeal cases as contextual factors. A frequent formal solution is to find someone “above” them who has hopefully been there for longer and who can be the one to “sign” the reference / evaluation based on input from the people underneath. Kind of like cobbling together three or four inputs, and signed by the Director. Unless your Director is a jerk, or there are other factors at play, this is usually something they are willing to do because they know the bind you are in. Or the HR people will let you list someone else.
The last variation that comes up is really hard to deal with. Lots of people have had their references retire, often with promises to act as a reference anytime, etc. Except they aren`t in the office anymore. They are totally OUT of the culture, processes, etc. And getting them to focus on doing an hour-long reference for you might not result in the right amount of detail, particularly not without a great deal of preparation.
For example, one of my references who would sing my praises loud and long and take the time to write a good reference when he was my boss actually retired about four years ago. Subsequently, he changed his ISP and home phone providers, which changed his email address and phone numbers. All of my contact info for him now bounces. Yes, I can track him down, but not likely in time if I have to submit a name today.
Plus, in all honesty, HR prefers to ask active references, not retired ones. Not necessarily for any good reason, other than convenience, and because the ethical obligations of day-to-day management still apply. Managers almost HAVE to do it, and they have to do it fairly. Retired people may take longer, and may not fill it out as carefully. It is hit/miss depending on the retiree and how long ago they retired, and some HR people have had bad experiences that colour their views for the future.
My personal view is that a retired reference is good for about a year, maybe two if you’ve stayed in touch somehow. If they’re no longer available — moved, dead even, no contact info, etc. — there’s nothing you can do. You have to make do with who’s left in your contact list. Most people compensate by either using another manager at the same level in the same team (if they’re willing) or bumping up a level. But it’s tough.
One last caveat for choosing your references. If they ask for current manager, do not think you can fudge it by listing someone else. Because as soon as that other “replacement” choice goes to fill out the reference, the profile section says, “When did you manage Jane?” and/or asks them to identify if they are a previous or current manager. Don’t expect your previous manager to lie for you, and assuming they don’t, your HR people will catch that you don`t have the current one in the list. And then it becomes a THING. Likely one you can’t manage as well. Deal with it upfront, openly.