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Recently I browsed some posts on a discussion forum related to biotechnology careers. Tempers were flaring. It seems that the discussion had gotten onto the subject of whether or not industry employers check references, and whether a few letters of reference or a performance appraisal will satisfy them. One of the contributors to the discussion had this to say:
"I don't believe that companies rely on references to make the decision to hire. It is more important to have strong technical credentials, and this is determined by an in-person interview. References have very little to do with this."
Although I agree that no one is going to hire you until they have convinced themselves you'll be able to do the job, this person is wrong to believe that companies don't use reference-checking as a part of the validation process. Even if you ace the interview, there will be a process afterward that has a great deal to do with whether or not you are hired. Many technical people overlook the importance of this process.
Even hiring managers sometimes look askance at references, because they are so easy to manipulate. And although most firms check references in one way or another, it's true that some 20% don't bother checking references at all. This is often due to an individual manager's belief that the process is "fixed" in the candidate's favor.
But in the last 2 years I have seen reference checks gathering steam. Examples of this phenomenon lie in a new book written for industry managers.
Edward Andler is a guru in the reference-checking business. His 40 years of experience are boiled down in The Complete Reference Checking Handbook. Andler describes how managers use the reference-check process to learn more about their candidates, not just to assist them in making the final selection. They like to find out what makes the prospective new hire tick--and learning more about how previous supervisors have motivated and inspired the applicant can help in getting the best performance from that person once they are on board.
Here are the three types of references that are used by employers who want to know more about you:
If you are entering the job market, your references will be checked. Here are some ideas on improving your attractiveness to employers, distilled from Edward Andler's book, "The Complete Reference Checking Handbook:"
Regardless of which type of reference check your prospective employer is using, you need to understand their goals for the process. These might include learning more about your work patterns (consistencies as well as inconsistencies), interpersonal relations, personal attributes (strengths and weaknesses), environments in which you are most (and least) effective--and of course to validate your professional competence in a given area.
Although all three types of reference checks can assist the company in reaching its goals, there are some things that make each unique and a few ways that you can optimize them for your particular situation.
Phone References: This is an easy one for most hiring managers, and that is why it is so often used in industry. Your prospective boss simply picks up the phone and makes contact with your adviser or other listed references. Human resource departments generally ask you for official permission to make such calls (you'll probably sign something on an application form that says it is OK for the company to check references). The key thing to remember here is that you need to make your references aware that they may receive a call about this matter, even those who have written a letter. Employers generally spend about 15 to 20 minutes on these calls. If there has been a previous written reference, then an effort will be made to expand on comments or concerns shown in that letter. If this call is made to a person who hasn't already provided input, the caller will make the usual inquiries about your strengths and weaknesses.
The biggest surprise may be when the caller asks, "Can you suggest other people whom I can call who know this person?" Yes--the reference calls may go beyond the three or four names you have provided with your application!
Here's what you should do about it:
Written Letters of Reference: Although many managers request these, they are without much merit in the industrial life sciences unless they are followed up with additional information gleaned via phone calls. I suggest to my employer clients not to put reference-letter requests in their recruitment ads, as it is so easy to write a letter of reference for a marginal employee that makes him or her look good.
Third-party references: Every company has a different policy on whether or not they use outside references, because the quality of outside references varies a great deal. Generally, it will be the headhunter who contacted you in the first place who will check your references; any recruiter who has earned your future employer's trust is not going to provide references that are manipulated. It could also be another type of third party who makes these calls: a "background check" agency. But even when the company has these references in their hands, they often do some follow-up of their own. In particular, hiring managers believe that outside third-party references don't provide enough detail about technical matters.
In many pharmaceutical and biotech companies, managers have well-developed antennae for the hiring process. They can spot a good hire in a short period of time. These folks hire by a combination of gut feeling and instinct.
The best managers, however, combine that instinct with outside information gathered through the reference-checking process. If you are on the industry job market, I can assure you that you will be "referenced" in the near future. Now is the time to start gathering people who will be on your side throughout the process. A good reference, someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about you, is one of the most powerful advantages that you have in your job search. Cultivate and maintain those contacts!
Edward C. Andler, The Complete Reference Checking Handbook (Amacom, New York City, 2003)