Women at Work: What to say when giving a reference

May 5, 2019

In early April, after 10 years in the same position, a woman I had managed years go decided it was time to throw her hat in the ring in hopes of landing a new job. Throughout the process, I coached her in areas such as cover letters, interviewing tips and writing follow up notes.

After a couple of interviews with prospective employers, it dawned on her that she had used me as a reference. Lo and behold a couple of days later I received a call asking for just that — a reference. After the gentleman introduced himself, told me where he was calling from and why, I simply took over the conversation. Without hesitation I was able to tell an entire story about this amazing lady.

I even included how she handled a sometimes “moody” manager (me) very well and received constructive criticism like a champ. It was only after we hung up did I realize how I monopolized the entire conversation, and he did not even get a chance to ask me any questions. At first I thought he probably just wanted to get me off his phone, but then I realized that I had probably covered everything he was going to ask, so I alleviated the need.

Whether you are an employer, supervisor, co-worker, teacher, or play another role in someone’s life, chances are you will be asked to give a reference on someone’s behalf. A job seeker’s success depends on good references. Outside of the generic questions covering a job title, description, and skills, other areas such as work ethics and attitude are often addressed.

Questions like the following are most likely to arise:

“Tell me a little bit more about so and so … ”I do believe this is the one and only question I was asked recently before I began my reference story. Doing the opposite of what I did is the advice I have to offer. Hitting on two or three of the candidate’s qualities relevant to the job they are seeking is the best response. To demonstrate you know about these qualities, include how long you worked with the person in question.

Of course, you will also be asked about the candidate’s strengths at work. Truthfully, this is another way to word, “Why should I hire this person?” To answer this, make sure you have a few specific examples worth sharing. For instance, rather than saying “Edna is detail-oriented and accurate,” answer with, “Edna completed 17 data entry projects, all with 100% accuracy and by the deadline given.” Or, “Our company just hosted a large event for its stockholders. It was a huge success due to Edna’s start-to-finish event planning skills.”

In the event you are asked about the candidate’s weaknesses, do not throw them under the bus, and do not state being a perfectionist is a weakness. Employers see right through that. For your reference to be credible, be prepared to answer honestly. Have an incident, along with circumstances that may have been a cause of the mistake, top of mind.

Giving a job reference essentially is endorsing a candidate much like a celebrity or an athlete endorses a product or service. You will have a lot of power and influence as to whether or not your former, or current, coworker gets the new position they are hoping to land. Always remember to be honest, but also, their career may lie partially in how you give the job reference.

P.S. The woman I gave the reference for? Well, she got the job.