“The Witness May Now Take the Stand” – Part 6 of the series “Choose Me, Hire Me!”

Headlines blare: “Why You Should Hire Me.” While times may be challenged, there is work (and jobs) to be had. I’ve been in the people (and teams) coaching business for over 25 years , both as a coach to managers and teams and also as someone directly responsible for hiring thousands of people through roles running large staffing / recruiting operations. From that experience I have a pretty good sense of how and why people get hired. “Choose Me, Hire Me!” is a nine part series on the ways people can improve their chances of being hired. This is Part 6.

After doing multiple interviews, you may get a job offer– but then again you may not. An out of the blue scorched earth reference will guarantee that you won’t get any offer and won’t get any job. So what can you do?

If you’re smart, you’ve anticipated that type of general references you’ll receive and you’ve taken care to weave that feedback into your personal narrative during interviews. It should be, after all, the type of thing that speaks to how your work went, the skills you’ve claimed as yours, and how well you worked with others.

Strong interviewing processes do a number of things; one of them is elicit a clear sense of who the candidate is, and use the referencing process to confirm that what people have experienced in the past with the candidate is what the prospective employer pictures from their interviews with you. If you think you see a proverbial “ax murderer”, and still want to hire them, you would expect to get picture of someone swinging a sharp blade when you talk to references.

Usually there is no offer to be made if you have a disconnect between what interviews see and experience and what references say in a seriously negative direction. The reverse, surprisingly, should apply but seldom does.

Reputation of being too serious? Make sure you mention that some people, including many with whom you’ve worked with effectively, initially found you a little joyless. Mention that you’re not: you enjoy a good time and party as much as the next person but after you’ve met or exceeded your objectives, not before.

Talk with everyone you list as a reference as things start to get serious about a offer, as well as anyone not listed who might get called: “you may get a call.” Tell them about the role, why you’re interested, and how you think your background and skills are well suited. Ask for their thoughts regarding how well the job matches. In some cases, particularly with more senior roles where the stakes are greater – and world in which you work is smaller – it makes sense to talk to folks even before you take the first interview.

If their feedback is that it’s a poor match, take a deep breath and listen hard. Canaries in the proverbial coalmine don’t give us much notice as the person who knows you and blurts out “why are you interested in that job?” or “why would you ever want to work for them ?” Do the obvious – ask them what makes them think that – and suggestions for other things you should avoid.

If their feedback is positive, ask them what sorts of things they’ll be able to say about you: the purpose of this piece of the conversation is for you to know what your references will say. It also gives you a chance to make sure that people are more thoughtful (by having a sort of rehearsal) and less likely to surface something that is surprising. There are independent third parties that will provide references for employers. I think it’s of dubious value since I’d want to verify them directly for any number of reasons such as accuracy, authenticity and liability.

And while on the subject of verification, any resume you use or application you complete should be accurate. Incorrect job dates and titles, falsified academic credentials (was that PhD really an AbD?), and missing employers is an intelligence test for both candidate and employer: is the candidate dumb enough to fake things, and is the employer smart and thorough enough to catch it?

Good referencing, by the way, surfaces other people to speak to about references for candidates. There is no hard and fast rule about this, and no professional guidance of which I’m aware. The practice is more common for senior roles, particularly from retained search, rather than mid to junior roles where referencing is frequently more rote, perfunctory, and seen as less critical.

I think it’s a smart move to ask references to confirm once you expect them to be contacted – and ask them to let you know if / when they’ve been contacted: it helps you track the progress of the employer and give you a better sense about what might be happening. Have no references contacted and that’s probably a sign that no offer is forthcoming – either you are not the lead candidate or perhaps the job itself is being rethought. It’s also not uncommon that some but not all references are contacted primarily when employers are shortcutting corners to cut time.

Last, I know of cases at large, “sophisticated” employers where the quality of the referencing was dodgy: significant issues that should have surfaced were  not, and good vetting was not done. So if you’ve got some ticking bomb in your past take solace that it may not surface after all.

Coming up next: Part 7: Ten Secrets Headhunters (Usually) Don’t Tell You