How to be a great referee and help mentees get amazing jobs

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There are responsibilities that come from a senior title. One is that you get to be a referee. And if you are lucky, a mentor. The person who supports someone as they experience a perfect or terrible job. And the person who might help them dodge a dud job in the first place.

I love being a referee. And just as well, because the phone rings at least once a fortnight asking me to testify to the skills of a job candidate. In the last few years I have had close to 100 conversations about my former colleagues with recruiting strangers. It’s quite an investment. One where my reputation and relationships are also on the line.

I have been a referee for some people through multiple jobs. We stay in touch. I hear whether the position they believed in was the position that materialised. For some, I see the heartbreaking realisation that they have been sold a lemon — the manager is micro, the culture is stifling, the expectations ridiculous. Sometimes it is brutal, sometimes a simple mismatch. We talk about how they can escape, and I prepare to be a referee again.

This experience has made me a little bold, and recently I tried something new.

The HR contact called and we chatted. I had given him my honest feedback on my former colleague, a rising star. It appeared he was unsurprised at her brilliance and her areas for growth, so in I went.

I interviewed back.

“How would you describe the culture? How long have you worked there? What do you like about the place?”

I questioned his opinions about his workplace. I found things out. I understood his ethics of working in HR meant he would not place someone there if he did not think it was a great workplace. He himself had chosen to work there for specific reasons and knew that the organisation was genuine. He was happy there. I heard it clearly in his tone.

In the scheme of things, I was no Leigh Sales. We giggled a bit, the interviewer and I, at this reversing of the status quo.

He’d never had a referee quiz him back.

We laughed again as I thanked him. And he thanked me. And I wondered if our conversation would get a mention on his report. I hoped that my curiosity had not put a mark against my former colleague. I let her know that HR at the organisation of the role she was applying for contacted me for a reference, I asked them some questions, and I thought the role sounded great.

She got the job of course. Not because of me — she is an awesome candidate.

A few months earlier, in another reference-giving conversation, I’d had the chance to address the elephant in the room. “Why was he (my former colleague) leaving his current role so quickly?”, asked the potential new manager. We’d spoken long enough for me to know he was astute, and kind. She could tell his answers of ‘needed a new challenge’ and ‘loved the role when I saw it’ were true, but not the full story. I knew the full story.

I bit the bullet, “Between you and I, his current workplace is toxic. He has managed this professionally, but as his mentor, I am advising him to get out. It is tricky for him to explain this in an interview.”

We had a good conversation then, about our experiences in tough environments, and the difficulty of managing them well. About what I had seen the candidate do to try to improve his situation. I was reassured he would not be going from his frying pan into a new fire. He got the job and thrived.

In these role reversals, I did no harm, perhaps I did a little good. I’ve started to see there is a place for a referee addressing questions of culture.

In most cases, referees sit outside the core activity of applications and interviews, popping up at the end as a checking point for assumptions.

In reality, we are in a privileged position, able to see both sides, and can improve the chance of a job working out. We often speak to the next manager, a peer to us, or a HR expert, and we’ve been chosen by a candidate because they believe that we understand them, see the best in them. Our insight could foresee issues, or be the first step to a wonderful match.

There are leagues of us out there. Referees with insight who care about former colleagues going to workplaces that they can excel in. As far as I know, no-one spends much time thinking about how we can realise the potential for this. How we can help recruitment work well in the long-term. Perhaps our idea of a ‘good referee’ needs to expand.

So back to me. Yesterday. I did it again. I asked the asker. And again, a voice brightened. Phew. I say nothing more. My contact gets the job and I’m ready for the next call.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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