BE CAREFUL YOUR REFERENCES AREN’T TOO OLD!
Now that I have your attention, perhaps it would have been better to have said that references shouldn’t be people you worked with more than five to seven years ago. Why? Because, if you pick people you worked with longer than five, six, or even seven years ago, the likelihood of them remembering the specifics about your job performance is going to be very small.
For proof, try putting yourself in the reference’s shoes for a minute and think about someone you worked with, let’s say, ten years ago. Suppose someone you worked with a decade ago calls and asks you to be a reference for her. Suppose you agree and, in due course, a prospective employer calls and tells you that so-and-so is a candidate for employment and gave your name as a reference. You recall agreeing to be a reference and happily tell the caller you would be pleased to answer any questions he or she may have.
Right out of the box, the caller asks what so-and-so’s job title was and how long the two of you worked together. What, do you suppose, the chances are that you’ll remember that job title and the precise dates you worked together a decade ago? Slim? Even if you do remember that the candidate was an entry-level trainee in 2001, she could be a candidate for a senior manager’s position today! But, just for the sake of discussion, let’s suppose you do remember that you and the candidate worked together for about two years, from 1999 to 2001, but you simply don’t recall her job title. No problem, the caller says. Then you’re asked what the candidate’s responsibilities were on the job? Now, you’re really on the spot! The chances of having a clear recollection of what somebody’s duties were a decade ago are likely to be nil. Then the caller asks you what you think the candidate needed most to improve her overall job performance at the time? Keeping in mind that at least ten years have passed, how relevant do you suppose your response will be today? Nevertheless, you vaguely recall that she could have improved her communications skills. The point, obviously, is that people grow and change over time and her communication skills since 2001 could easily have improved during the intervening years and communication skills could be one of her strongest assets today.
Without belaboring the point, people change, memories fade, and the relevance of comments about overall job performance from ten years ago could be totally inaccurate or irrelevant today. That’s why references should be people who are familiar with your job performance as it is now, not as it was a decade ago.
It might make some sense to have a current reference, one from a couple of years ago, and a third from four of five years ago because people do change and what might have been a weakness five years ago could easily have become a strength today! That shows professional growth and development, and that’s a very good thing. But there is an outer limit to the selection of references that makes selecting people who haven’t worked with you for ten or more years problematic and could turn out to be at least a waste of the prospective employer’s time and an embarrassment to the reference who doesn’t recall any pertinent facts about your job performance today – and, worst of all, your chances of getting the job could be jeopardized!
That’s the reason “old” references aren’t worth much!