How to get – and interpret job references

As Schusterman’s career matchmaker, I work with job seekers and hiring managers in our network to place great candidates into top jobs. In my conversations with hiring mangers the past few months, I’ve heard a consistent theme about hiring talent: several hiring managers told me they had been excited about top candidates they were about to hire...until they talked to their references!

For the hiring manager, calling references is the last step in the hiring process – the only thing standing in the way of an offer is a reference call that checks out. For the job seeker, providing references can feel like the icing on the cake since your handpicked references will surely give you a good recommendation, right?

But it’s time to rethink job references. Job seekers have been selecting the wrong references to provide – and hiring managers aren’t asking the right questions of them.

The key is to look forward, rather than back.

All too often, references serve to shed light on the candidates past performance. This makes sense – after all, the references know how the candidate performed at a previous job.

Yet the best references focus on the future. And the key to looking forward is focusing not on the job seeker’s achievements, but on their mindset.

Carol Dweck, in “Mindset,” talks about a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. When people have a fixed mindset, they believe that their basic abilities, like intelligence or success are traits set in stone. Past performance will dictate future potential; essentially a spiral of history that repeats itself.

Individuals with a growth mindset, in contrast, believe that their basic abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication. A growth mindset is desirable, as it promotes life-long learning and an ability to change behaviors.

Asking for feedback on a job seeker's past performance assumes that their past performance is indicative of how they will perform in the future. Yet, that future doesn’t account for the job seeker's potential personal and professional growth, or in other words, their growth mindset.

The lesson for the job seeker is to showcase their growth mindset by picking references that also have a similar outlook. Do references engage in constant learning? Do they tend to have a more positive or cynical approach towards their own circumstances in life? If the reference has a gloomy outlook toward themselves and their work, you can’t expect them to paint the job seeker in a positive light. 

For hiring managers, listen closely not only to the way references talk about the candidate’s success (or failures) but also to how they talk about the candidate’s personal growth – to what degree has the job seeker sought out professional development and learning opportunities on the job and outside of work? Ask the reference how the job seeker behaves in different situations and ascertain the reference’s mindset by asking some probing questions that might highlight the complexity and self-awareness the reference has about the job seeker’s behavior. Has the reference given feedback to the job seeker? What was the feedback and how was it received and what happened as a result?

For the job seeker, think about how to choose references that can best showcase your growth mindset and self-awareness. The references you are inclined to ask might know your work well but could be stuck in their way of thinking.

For the hiring manager, if you ask the wrong questions you might miss out on a good candidate. How are you synthesizing feedback from the recommender that is representative of your own growth mindset? And how much weight are you putting on the reference’s input compared to your own evaluation of the job seeker?

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