Someone just sent me an e-mail asking about how to leverage a Microsoft employee that is willing to act as a reference for them. Great question. As I write my blog and think about people that might read it, I hope that if they decide to pursue a career at Microsoft, they leverage every opportunity to get in front of the right people to be considered. That could mean sending their resume to me (don't be afraid, it's OK) or engaging another employee to act as a referral.
A co-worker today told a story about a candidate whose resume she was reviewing at a previous company. This candidate listed someone that the recruiter knew well as a referral and when the recruiter called this employee to get the scoop on the candidate, she found out that the employee remembered the prospect from college years before, only as a casual acquaintance and most frequently in the company of a cold beer.
This made me think about how important it is for job seekers to consider carefully who they list as references and this led to the advice I offered to the job seeker that contacted me earlier today. That advice was to carefully assess the relationship they have with the referring employee and what role that employee is willing to take on as it regards the job seeker's candidacy. It matters less what the employees role is and more that the job seeker understands that role and leverages it appropriately. "May I use you as a reference?" is the beginning of the conversation, not the end. Here are some things to think about....maybe even discuss with the person that is willing to refer you:
1) Is this person involved in the space that you want to work within the company? Could add to their credibility when it comes to assessing talent for that type of role
2) Have you worked with this person before or are they a personal reference? I'm not a big fan of the personal reference. It's nice that you have friends, but what recruiters care about more than whether you are a good house-sitter and split the dinner check is whether or not you can get it done on the job. If you rock at your job, I don't care if your best friend is imaginary. If you have multiple personal references but have a hard time coming up with as many professional references, that is a red flag.
3) Is the person only willing/able to provide dates of employment and confirmation of title and role, or will they offer an opinion on your ability to do your job. This is tough because many people are afraid of conflict and they may not want to tell you that they thought you could have improved on some aspects of your job. Some people are afraid of the legal ramifications of offering a reference. You should figure this out and NOT provide their name or at least make clear that this person will only provide the minimal required data (and only if you really need this reference...I'd pick the people willing to provide feedback first).
4) What is the communication style of your reference? They are, in effect, selling you and your skill set. How good are they at selling in general? Are they adept at expressing weaknesses as opportunities? Do they really "get" you and your strengths? Think about your interactions with them. Do they provide critical feedback in a positive way? What is their motivation for referring you?
5) What is this employee willing to do to help you? Allow you to list their name on an application or cover letter? Allow YOU to use their name in introductory e-mails? Will they coach you on groups you should look at and roles you should apply for?
You can't exactly ask a referring employee "what are you going to say about me?" but you should definitely feel out the situation. In the past, I have heard recruiters poo-pooh reference checking with phrases like "anyone can get someone to say something nice about them" (lazy!), but there's plenty of reading between the lines that goes on. Consider the difference between an applicant whose references are only willing to "confirm dates of employment" and the applicant whose references are willing to actively endorse them. All things being equal (which they never are, but still), which candidate would you hire?
Only you know the relationship you have with a possible referrer. So I am not sure that I can give definitive advice, but it's a wise job seeker that takes the time to thoughtfully consider potential referrers and engage them in the way that shines the best light on their candidacy.