Advice for Laid-off IT Pros: Don’t Diminish the Importance of References

Don Tennant
Slide Show

Overcoming Shortcomings During a Job Interview

I met a former IT professional named Jerry yesterday. I don’t know what Jerry’s last name is, but it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Jerry is in his 60s, and he can’t find a job in IT. And it matters that there are way too many Jerrys.

Jerry drives for a limo service in New Jersey, and our chance encounter came when he picked me up from a meeting to take me to the airport in Newark. We had plenty of time to chat as we sat in traffic on the Garden State Parkway, and I learned that his career as an IT pro working for Volvo came to a screeching halt a few years ago when Volvo consolidated its data centers in Greensboro, N.C. That consolidation made Jerry expendable. After he was laid off, he tried working as an independent IT consultant for a while, but he was unable to make ends meet. So now he’s a driver for a limo service—a good job, and one that any number of people would love to have. But I could tell that Jerry didn’t find it all that fulfilling.

As Jerry told his story, I was reminded of a book I had recently come across, titled “Super Job Search IV: The Complete Manual for Job Seekers & Career Changers.” Written by Peter K. Studner, a former corporate executive who now does career counseling, the book contains some really helpful, practical advice for the Jerrys of the world.

A topic in the book that I found especially interesting, simply because it seems to be so frequently neglected by job seekers, has to do with the importance of placing a higher emphasis on selecting the right job references.

"When a potential employer checks your references, it's because they're serious about hiring you," Studner says. "And especially in today's competitive market, a single lukewarm reference can kill your candidacy. The good news is, by choosing your references thoughtfully and talking with them before giving out their contact information, you can guide the process in your favor."

Here are a few of Studner’s tips on what to consider:

  • Choose your references carefully. Your best references will support claims you've made about your achievements, skills, and experience, so ideally, they'll be people who have worked closely with you in the past. Consider former managers and supervisors, of course, but if you've been in a managerial position yourself, you might also want to include a few people you've supervised. In addition, put some thought into how your references might present you to potential employers. Effective references are good communicators who can discuss you and your work in an objective manner without exaggerating or offering long-winded tributes that might only provoke more questions in the interviewer's mind.
  • Think about how each reference can best support you. While most references will give you a good to excellent report, some might inadvertently include a hint that your previous work was less than standard or that the circumstances of your leaving were not good. For instance, "Cameron is a high achiever and doesn't suffer fools," might make an interviewer wonder if Cameron is too picky and demanding to get along with the team. So put some thought into what you'd like each reference to say about you. Think about the specific skills and accomplishments you'd like them to emphasize. Keep in mind that this information might vary from person to person, and even from potential job to potential job.
  • Set up a time to meet. Whenever possible, your reference meetings should be face-to-face. If distance is prohibitive, consider a videoconference or phone call. However you meet, make sure your references have a copy of your résumé.
  • Discuss the hard questions. When potential employers call your references, it's unlikely that the employer will simply say, "So, tell me about Taylor." Your references will probably have to go beyond the script you've given them about your skills and accomplishments. That's why it's a good idea to talk about how the reference would approach common interview questions. This conversation might be uncomfortable at times, but it's best to have an honest discussion about how each reference might approach difficult questions.

IT Career

To help guide that discussion, Studner has come up with a list of common questions that potential employers might ask your references:

  • How did you know the candidate?
  • What were the circumstances of his leaving the company?
  • Was she on any performance improvement plan? How did she do? (This may be asked if there are hints of any problems with your application.)
  • What are his strong points?
  • In what areas does she need improvement?
  • Would you hire him again?
  • What were her greatest achievements at the company?
  • Who else supervised him? (Be prepared—another supervisor may also be approached, even though he is not on your list.)
  • Did the candidate live up to your expectations?
  • How were her leadership skills? (This question will be asked if you’re applying for a managerial position.)
  • Was he appreciated by his colleagues?
  • Was she reliable?
  • Anything else you can add about the candidate?

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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