Terms of reference

9th October 1998 at 01:00
John Caunt offers a few well-chosen recommendations on the subject of referees

Following up references before an interview some time ago, I found that one candidate's main referee had died five years previously. It's an extreme example, but indicative of a widespread tendency to regard references as an irksome formality. References alone won't get you the job, but they can influence selectors. Taking a little care can enhance your prospects.

If you are in a job, employers will expect you to name your present head. A surprising number of candidates fail to do so, ringing alarm bells in the minds of selectors. There may be a good reason why you do not wish your current head to be approached, but it is wise to include his or her name, while asking selectors to avoid making contact until after the interview. This gives you a chance to explain your reasons rather than have them jump to conclusions.

People who have been in one job for a long time may struggle for second or third referees. Try to avoid quoting people who know nothing about your work over the past few years. If you plan to name more than one person from the same establishment, make sure they will present different slants on your capabilities.

Anyone out of work will find the referee dilemma even more acute. Most selectors will understand that your professional referees may be out-of-date, but you should include at least one person who can comment on your recent performance, perhaps in a voluntary or part-time capacity.

Selectors give obvious family friends little credence. Likewise, open testimonials should be avoided.

Few references are overtly bad. But damning with faint praise is not uncommon, and selectors are alive to the nuances of reference-writing. A well-written reference by a person who has taken the trouble to read the job description and match the candidate against it has far more influence than a one-size-fits-all, production-line letter. So, if you have the luxury of choice, pick referees who you know will take trouble over you.

Some managers will show and discuss references with you, but they are not bound to. References are confidential, but referees are legally bound to ensure they are accurate.

Finally, treat referees as you would home-insurance policies - choose carefully, keep them up-to-date and don't make excessive claims upon them.

MAKE SURE YOU LOOK AFTER YOUR REFEREES

* Always consult your referees before quoting them. Writing references is a chore, and receiving requests from employers out of the blue may not put your referee in the best frame of mind to sing your praises.

* Make sure such details as address and title are correct. Errors can be irritating to referee and selectors.

* If a referee offers to discuss your reference, take the opportunity. It is a useful chance for you to look at your candidature from another person's point of view, and may help to introduce elements of your experience they have overlooked.

* Try to choose referees who are relevant to the post for which you are applying and up-to-date in their knowledge of you.

* If a referee does not have day-to-day knowledge of your work, provide a copy of your CV or a brief summary of your professional activities.

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