Industry Secrets From A Recruiter: Five ways to maximize your attractiveness with honest and critical references

Some consider them a fool’s game, others, a talisman. And still yet, others consider them a formality akin to providing your driver’s license number on an application – a part of the process, but not affecting your candidacy.

I am talking, of course, about job references. Despite their occasional stigma, professional references can have a decisive effect on one’s candidacy. They have resuscitated unpromising candidates, highlighted humility and strong relationships, and even unveiled fallow candidates which were otherwise the paper-perfect-fit but doomed to disappointment.

Reputations absolutely do make a difference to how skilled hiring authorities piece together their final picture of you. But with such stakes at hand, how do you choose wisely, and what exactly should they say?

Five ways to maximize your attractiveness with honest and critical references

The most job-winning references we conduct have intense optimistic constructive criticism for the candidate. And likewise, some of the most useless references read like a medal of honor decoration. Wouldn’t everyone want glowing references? What, then, is a good reference?

If you are just now cultivating good references in your job search, it may be too late. Developing strong relationships, alliances really, that can provide game-changing references takes dedication to the success of those around you. If that’s something you can grow in, get busy growing. You don’t want to be asking that person who ‘owes you one’ for their professional input to your career, or worse, not realize they won’t reflect well on you.

1. Leverage references who are intimately familiar with your professional expertise

Good references can come from a variety of persons: supervisors, subordinates, peers, and clients. But what really sets them apart primarily is that they’ve worked with you. Whether it be any of the above mentioned, they should be able to recall specific examples of how you have demonstrated certain skill sets that are relevant to the opportunity in question. Bob, the ice cream man, may have great 35-second conversations with you every Friday evening, but he won’t lend credible insight to your character and expertise. Choose someone who worked with you enough to know both your strengths and opportunities for growth in detail.

2. Capitalize on their hard work building a strong industry reputation

References from the owner or responsible manager are often superior in quality than a reference from a peer or subordinate. Their insight is heavily weighted because their responsibility and perspective often sees contributions and struggles in the broader situational context. In addition, people with responsibility have a built in incentive to be clear and honest about their recommendations because their reputation as a manager or owner is connected to their analysis. They graciously impart their good industry standing to you via their thoughtful reference. A peer or subordinate can more easily be persuaded to provide a glowing, dataless reference.

3. Don’t ask your references to sugarcoat anything – get brutally honest

It is essential to trust that a company wants what’s best for you. If you can’t, run. Otherwise, trust them. Please allow me to explain: We all have weaknesses and opportunities for growth and improvement. The only way to thrive at your next job is to collaborate with your next boss on your opportunities for growth. This is the only way to grow personally and organizationally. People working closely with you can be of tremendous value in pointing these things out, as we all have blind spots.

Choose honest references who have worked closely enough with you to see your excellent qualities, and closely enough also to advise where your next company might support your opportunities for improvement.

It’s important to recognize that criticism of a reference does not necessarily mean that candidate is poorly suited. It often means that the candidate has the character and relationships to provide critical references with similarly strong character and an interest in seeing them succeed, not coddled.

Prepare your references to provide real insight. Encourage them to be honest. Some incorrectly believe that only glowing praise may be shared in a reference. The fact is, blindingly optimistic references are untrustworthy. They only provide a datapoint that the candidate is capable of providing shills to hock their qualities and disrespect the vetting process intended for their success and the company’s. A good reference-taker wants to have a meaningful conversation with a reference-provider about the true nature of your character, contribution, skills, and growth opportunities. References who, when asked about opportunities for growth, shrug and suggest that you descended angelically from heaven to bless your industry, ironically, are detracting from your credibility.

4. Lay down with dogs, wake up with ticks.

Birds of a feather flock together. If the reference you’ve provided can’t construct a sentence without cursing, how should that be perceived? If your reference is sexist, racist, or loose-tongued about their negative experiences in life, how should that be perceived? A consistent lack of professionalism in references is a serious indicator that you haven’t spent much time with the market superstars that are serious about their professionalism, ethics, and communication.

5. You must be important to them. If they want you to succeed they will make the effort to be prompt.

Great references provide their perspectives in a timely manner. It is a datapoint about the strength of your relationship. Express your gratitude for their sacrifice of time and perspective so that you can achieve your goals.

If you have worked with great leaders, and are a leader yourself, you should not have a hard time providing allies who can contribute to a great career transition for you in a timely manner.

No alt text provided for this image

In conclusion, put effort into strategizing which references will best represent you and communicate with them beforehand so that they are prepared to help you put your best foot forward. Be selective about who you choose. Choose only people that have observed you as an employee, colleague, and leader. Don’t avoid the ones that might have some constructive and optimistic feedback among the positive, as those are the ones that may be of greatest use to your target organization and, ultimately, your success.

Leave A Comment

Recent Articles


Author: TJ Kastning

TJ Kastning is the proud owner of Ambassador Search Group, a special high-touch, trust-based, old-fashioned headhunting firm serving only the best west coast companies.

To contact him email

View His Bio.