Emma: I don’t know how much weight hiring managers actually give references.
Andy: I mean, who can’t find a few people to say nice things about them?
Emma: But I’ve been a reference enough times to believe that a polished, persuasive recommendation from someone who sounds like they know what’s up has the power to shift a candidate from a yes to a hell yes. And that’s a power I prefer to wield with intention.
Andy: Totally. There are two kinds of references: the kind where someone, often in HR, is triple-checking that the first-choice candidate isn’t secretly a trainwreck—
Emma: Those ones are usually pretty low-key.
Andy: And then there’s the kind where the hiring manager is digging deep for intel.
Emma: I’ve been on a handful of 30–45 minute reference calls that felt like full-blown interview loops. You know that scrambling, tunnel-vision feel you get when you’re in an interview and bombing a question? Imagine that, only with someone else’s job on the line.
Andy: I might not always ask for references, but I definitely want to give good ones. It feels really crappy to bungle when you mean to champion.
Emma: To avoid that feeling, I recommend collaborating with the interviewee. Lots of my teammates and direct reports have been shocked by this move. They have this bonkers misconception that reference checks are like parent-teacher conferences and it’s all a secret. One woman I used to work with told me she thought it was sullying the purity of the interview if she coached me on what aspects of her work and style to talk about.
Andy: I can see how it seems like cheating before a test: tell me the answers, and I’ll write my name on it. But I only give recommendations for people I’m happy I hired, I loved working with, and would hire again in a heartbeat. I’m wholeheartedly on their side. If I can’t sing this person’s praises from the rafters, they need to find someone who can.
Telling someone, “No, I can’t be your reference” can be as simple as that. You don’t have to tell them why. No is a full sentence.
Emma: I’ve also explained, “No, I’m not giving references right now,” and “No, I don’t have the bandwidth to do that.” Because providing a reference is work. Strategy is required, and so is prep work. Even coordinating when to hop on the phone and configuring your schedule to fit it in is one more to-do on your life’s list. It is a huge favor you can be selective about providing.
So You Want Me to Be a Reference
These questions will help align your comments with the narrative the interviewee is building. You don’t need to get all this information the moment someone asks if you’re willing to be listed as a reference, but it’s important to know before you get on the phone for the reference check.
We either email these questions for the interviewee to fill out or schedule a 30-minute chat to talk through them and take notes.
What’s the role?
List the name of the company, the job, and a recap of the duties. A link to the job post is helpful if there’s one handy, as well as any impressions you’ve picked up from HR, the hiring manager, etc.
What are the top 3–5 qualities you want to showcase?
Not quite sure where to direct the focus? List out what questions you’ve been asked in your interview(s) so far.
How are you framing your work style and experience?
Describe the results and experiences you’ve shared so far that I can “yes, and” in my conversation.
What are you nervous about?
Any weaknesses your interviewer has been probing? Holes in your experience? Parts of the interview you think you fumbled?
Including but not limited to: things you’ve fudged a little that I could potentially contradict, style of the interviewer, incidents or experiences you’d like me to avoid, etc.
Andy: I love this resource from the University of Arizona’s Commission on the Status of Women, paw-print formatting and all. I first encountered it from a friend — and now a subscriber — who shared it on Facebook years ago (shoutout Rebecca!) and it’s completely transformed the way I give references.
Emma: YES YES YES! Emphasize accomplishments. Provide enough context. Leave out personal life. I can be really chatty, so my biggest focus is being conscientious of my word choice and eliminating gendered adjectives like “helpful” and “diplomatic” and “hard-working.” I want to give a rocket ship of a reference, not one that underscores how unobtrusive someone can be.
Andy: I’ve gotten much better at not sowing unneeded doubt, especially when answering the dreaded, “Where do they need to improve?” This is where that questionnaire comes extra in handy. You already know what they said, and I can echo it. Easy. I also think it’s fine to say: “Nothing stands out to me. We worked on XYZ things and improved them.”
Have Answers to These Questions Ready to Go
Who are you?
- How long did you work together?
- What was your working relationship?
- How would you describe their role?
We recommend a quick, two-line answer that provides context for how well you can speak to this person’s style and abilities.
I hired him in October 2017, and was his direct supervisor for the next 18 months. During that time he was promoted from recruiting coordinator to junior recruiter to recruiting lead.
We worked on the same team for three years. She was my editor on some of the biggest initiatives we undertook as a team during that time.
They were my point of contact at the venue where we were hosting our product launch. We collaborated very closely for four months.
Should I hire them?
- Would you hire them again?
- What are their strengths?
- What areas can they improve on in their next role?
Remember: accomplishments, not effort. Be careful raising doubt.
I would absolutely hire him again. He’s ambitious and coachable. I’d be excited to grow his expertise in sourcing technical roles and C-suite headhunting. He has all the core skills, but he didn’t have exposure to those opportunities here.
I would love to work for her again. She was the best reader of my work I’ve ever had — her edits are rigorous and thorough. The magazine we worked on won 17 awards. There isn’t anything I wanted from an editor she didn’t already have in spades.
They would be my first pick to work with in the future. Our event was successful in large part because of their expertise. I had a lot of last-minute requests they handled with confidence.
What’s it like to to work with them?
- What is their working/collaboration style?
- How do they deal with stress?
- How are they working on multiple projects at the same time?
- What is their attitude toward unglamorous work?
Just like in an interview, “tell me about a time” examples are key. Describe a relevant situation, and then explain how they were successful within that situation.
During an incredibly ambitious growth spurt last year, he hired 16 candidates in one week — more than 400% the previous record — by creating a casting call-style interview blitz. In the face of a stressful deadline, he was inventive and resourceful in developing a new process that delivered results.
The October issue is the largest and most ambitious issue of the year. In my tenure writing for it, I’ve witnessed a lot of churn from stressed-out teammates trying to interpret vague comments on their work. But that was never a problem with her. Her comments are skillfully direct and carry solutions, not just point out problems. Plus, she’s confident that the finished product will be excellent, and that leadership helps mitigate tension across the entire team.
There was so much unglamorous work, and they were not afraid to get in it up to their elbows. One experience that comes to mind was when we ran out of cold beer mid-event due to a freezer malfunction. They had the waitstaff put together an impromptu tasting with the sponsored scotch label while they negotiated delivery with a nearby liquor store, helped them unload the truck, and load it all into trays of ice. It was a lot of fast thinking combined with heavy lifting, and they did it with absolute competency.
Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Professional Reference Edition