Monday, October 4, 2010

Hang On to that Gold Star Reference

Over the course of your career, you're going to work with a lot of different people on a lot of different projects. Some of these projects will be forgettable. Others will prevail in your memory for years to come. Through all the mundane tasks and meetings, you'll eventually work on a project that goes swimmingly from start to finish. The project was fun, taught you new skills, and most importantly, had a positive effect on your company. Chances are that if everything went great, you probably got along very well with the person who managed that project. In my case, I worked on a redesign of an internal HR web site that came together perfectly over the course of several weeks. The HR manager Doug and I got along really well and he was thrilled with the result of the project. When I left the company, I asked if he would be a reference for me in the future and he was more than happy to agree. Since leaving the company, Doug has provided reference checks for me on multiple occasions. We last worked together 5 years ago.

Doug is my "gold star" reference and I truly appreciate the time he takes out of his busy schedule to speak to employers who want to learn more about me. In January of 2010 alone, he spoke with three separate companies on my behalf and each call lasted longer than 30 minutes. After getting off the phone with one of these companies, he gave me a call and told me that he spoke about my past work and my professional character like I was "the Kanye West of IT" (his words, not mine). In other words, he spoke very highly of me and as he put it, he had "the right answers" to every question they asked. It doesn't hurt that Doug has been in HR for over 25 years and knows how the process works. Aside from his professional qualifications, he's a funny guy and is a blast to be around.
If you've provided reference checks for people in the past, you always know when you're about to get a call from a company. If the job seeker is courteous enough to warn you ahead of time, you'll get an email from them out of the blue asking how you're doing and what you've been up to. Then they let the news drop. "Oh, and you might get a call from *Company X* for a reference check. I hope you don't mind! Thanks!" Relationships between a "referencer" and "referencee" are typically one-sided, with the person giving the references putting in way more than they get back from the job seeker. The person who provides reference checks for you usually agrees to do so because of a positive prior business relationship. As this project moves further and further into the past, just how long can you continue to use the same person as a reference? In my opinion, I think you should be able to use the same reference over and over again as long as you stay in touch with the person and periodically catch up on recent news. You should have other, more recent references anyway to give employers a look into your latest work.

As I mentioned in a previous article, visiting your past employers just for the sake of catching up is a great way to show your references that you aren't simply interested in their ability to make you sound like a superstar to potential employers. Your references should be people you respect and who respect you. These mutual business relationships are critical to job hunting, whether it's in regards to reference checks, job leads, or any other situation where "having a friend" in the business can benefit both of you.

Two or three years after the completion of the redesign project, Doug unexpectedly found himself out of work (This was back before the employment meltdown of the past few years). I couldn’t believe it upon hearing the news and I wanted to do something for him during this tough time. Little did I know that taking Doug to one lunch would leave such a lasting impression on him. When you’re going through a difficult situation, no gesture is too small to go unappreciated and I can tell that this one get-together meant way more to him than I thought it would. As I’ve found from his reference checks since then, he hasn’t forgotten about it.

Still, after all the time Doug spent on the phone with my potential employers in 2010 (at least two hours by my calculations), I wanted to do something nice for him. I sent him a nice note along with an Amazon gift card as a way of saying thanks. We hadn't had a chance to talk since I started my most recent job and I wanted to make sure he knew how appreciative I was. If you don't talk frequently, sending thank you notes to your gold star references after landing a job is a great way of showing that you aren't just ignoring them now that you got what you wanted.

As you progress in your career, you'll find that certain people will always be a part of your professional life, no matter how much of that time you spent as actual colleagues. Make a concerted effort to hang on to the contacts that really matter by investing more than an email or two every few years. Aside from great reference checks, you'll foster a professional relationship that could benefit both of you for years to come.

Guest Expert:

Chris Perugini is the author and creator of How To Land A Job, a job hunting website that features 100% original commentary on all things employment. From resume pointers to job application tips, How To Land A Job has something for everyone, even if you’re currently employed!

Chris is a web developer by day. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Hartford and also holds an MBA from the University of Connecticut. He lives in Watertown, CT.

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