SHOULD A REFERENCE SAY JUST GOOD THINGS ABOUT YOU?
The answer to that question may seem obvious to many readers. “Well, of course, I want my references to say what a great employee I was.” That seems like the logical response, but is it really? The point that every job seeker needs to keep in mind is that nobody is perfect and that all of us can improve in some area of our professional lives or learn more about some aspect of our jobs or careers. Nothing sends up a red flag more quickly for a prospective employer than comments by a reference that suggest the candidate performed so well that he or she was a perfect employee. Why? Because no one is perfect!
So, when asking a coworker, for example, to be a reference for you, what should you ask him or her to say about you? The answer is very simple; you should ask him/her just to give honest answers or honestly held opinions in response to any of the questions asked.
There’s another more fundamental reason to ask references to be honest about your job performance. Suppose the prospective employer asks a reference how knowledgeable you are in, let’s say, analytical spectroscopy. Then, let’s suppose your reference raves about your expertise in every aspect of analytical spectroscopy when, in fact, you know absolutely nothing about it. Next, suppose you’re hired, based on the expectation that you can easily handle projects involving some of the more sophisticated aspects of analytical spectroscopy – and you fall on your face and get fired! How much of a service did your reference do you by praising your skills in a discipline about which you knew nothing?
It would have been far better if your reference had said something like, “I don’t think he/she knows very much about analytical spectroscopy, but I’m sure he/she will be able to pick it up quickly.” More fundamentally, to continue to use this example, if the job requires a thorough understanding of analytical spectroscopy, you are not the right person for the job if you’re not even sure what it is! So, you don’t want your references to say you’re an expert in a subject about which you know nothing in an effort to help you get a job for which you’re truly not qualified. Everybody loses in a case like that: both you and the employer! Not to mention the damage done to your career as a result of being fired from a job for which you weren’t qualified in the first place!
It’s far better for your references to give honest answers to any questions that are asked about your job performance than it is for them to overinflate your skills and abilities. The idea behind careful reference checking is to make sure the candidate is right for the job and the job is right for the candidate. Honesty, as in most things, is the key to achieving that goal – for both parties.