Thursday, June 10, 2010

Can’t Convert Interviews to Job Offers - Maybe your Job References are the Problem

Many candidates wonder why they’re not getting job offers, as they have excellent qualifications/CV, regularly get invited to interviews that go well, and feel positive connections with the employer manager/human resources people. Yet time after time they don’t get the hoped for call. Certainly there can be many reasons for this, and a job candidate will always have a difficult time getting at the truth. Maybe the manager found another candidate that they preferred because of some combination of experience/skills/salary, possibly the employer put the job on hold, maybe someone internal was found – the list goes on and on. However, job seekers overlook a possibility that can play a critical role: their job references.

For many job seekers, references will play a significant part in the recruitment process. When a potential employer asks you for references, this should be construed as a positive signal. It means that the company is prepared to make an investment in resources to further check your suitability for the job. At least this is usually the case, although it is not uncommon that employers will specifically ask for references and then never even bother to follow-up.

I have found that job seekers often don’t pay enough attention to who they are supplying to potential employers as job references. The objective is to have relevant individuals illustrate to the company that you have the appropriate skills and work ethic to meet their requirements. Any professional contact that you believe can convey that message and has the right type of relationship with you can serve this purpose for you successfully. But that does not mean that each person in your past is equally appropriate.

So, how should you decide who are the best references for you? Here are some things to consider:
  • Reference Mix - Do you have a good variety of professional relationships in your job reference list? Depending upon the position you are interviewing for and the personality of the hiring manager, their preference might be for previous managers, HR representatives, clients, subordinates or colleagues. You should try to have at least one or two from each of these categories, so that you are prepared when the request is made.
  • Prepare your References - Do the people you are presenting know that you are seeking work and which message you are trying to convey – in fact do they even remember you? The worst case scenario is for an employer to call your references and find someone that doesn’t immediately know who you are. Actually, I guess that is not the worst thing – having someone say things that are hurtful to your chances is probably less good – although this is a matter of degree. In courtroom trials, lawyers have a rule not to ask a question of a witness for which they don’t already know what the response will be. Before offering someone as a reference, you should contact them to ask for their permission, and at the same time describe to them which positions you are seeking and what image you are working to portray. This is something that should be done relatively close to the time in which you are supplying them as references to employers.
  • Are your References Relevant? - Does the person know your previous work well enough to give useful information? If the person knows you, and has the interest to positively influence your job search, do they have the knowledge of your abilities to make a valuable impact? Finding people that worked with you closely and can provide specific examples of your value to the company will serve you best.
  • Can’t Give Contact of Current Employer - What happens if you can’t give a reference from your current employer because you don’t want them to know you are seeking work? Even if you have not made it publicly known that you are looking for a job, you may still find appropriate people in your current company which you can discreetly inform.
  • Current/Previous Employer is Negative - What about the case where you can’t give references from your previous company because you left under unpleasant circumstances? In this case, you will need to prepare your explanation to new employers, describing why you can’t give such references, as this is surely a question you can anticipate will arise. Honestly is the best policy, and honestly without talking negatively about the former company/co-workers is even better, as an employer that hears you speak critically of previous employers will likely make the assumption that you can/will do the same about them.
  • Entry-Level / Changing Careers - What happens if you are seeking your first job, for instance someone completing school or the military? Managers are trying to find references that can help them ascertain how you will perform in their company. So, if you have previous work references in the same sector, this is the best. However, for those switching professions/sectors or applying for entry-level positions, then anyone you know that can convey that you are a stable and responsible person will be satisfactory. This can be satisfied from your educational, volunteer, military, or work history (even if it is in a different industry).
  • Immigrants – What is the best way to handle the situation where you are (relatively) new to Israel, and your most relevant or only work experience is outside of the country? Israeli employers have no problem adding a few digits to the telephone number and dialing internationally, although you should remind them of the time zone differences :>). You probably need to find English speakers, but other than that, the rules above apply. I do think that if everything else is equal, Israeli employers would much prefer to speak with local job references, as this will give them more comfort that the cultural/professional perspective is closer to their own. So as you progress in your career in Israel, you will improve your future employment searches by having local and Hebrew-speakers as your references
  • Letters of Reference - You can always ask relevant people to write letters of reference for you, which you can bring to interviews and present if requested. However, it is rare to find a company that will ask to see letters; most employers prefer the dynamics of a telephone conversation.
In most cases your job references have the intention to further your career objectives. Help them help you by making it clear to them what you are seeking and how they can move you forward in the recruitment process.

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