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How to be a good reference for a classmate or co-worker

In the period directly following university and the beginning of our careers, we all become accustomed to asking others for references.

It’s a different story, however, when you are on the other end of that request. There is surprisingly little information available on the Internet for what you should and shouldn’t do—most resources on the Internet focus on what to do when the situation is reversed. So where do you start?

The first step in being a reference is to refresh your memory about working with the individual in question. Rachel Mazur, an associate planner at Winners Merchants International, says, “I would review any file I have on the associate to refresh my memory on the work they did, so I am better prepared to talk about the person during the reference.”

Any documentation is useful, such as performance appraisals and accompanying notes. It’s important to give a potential employer as accurate a picture as possible.

It can be tough, however, when you are asked to be a reference for someone that you either did not enjoy working with or you could not recommend with flying colours. How you deal with this situation is a personal choice.

Michael Nachuk, a product manager for New World Wines at the LCBO, says, “I’ll have a word with them and let them know these are the kind of things that I would say about them, so there’s no surprise.” He says he believes that honesty is the best policy.

Mazur, on the other hand, says, “If I cannot be a good reference, I would not accept to be one.” However, the principle is the same: never compromise on telling the truth. Doing so will only hurt your credibility and reputation, and maintaining your integrity is extremely important.

“When they phone, I’m honest,” says Nachuk, adding that he doesn’t really go out of his way to frame anything in a negative way. “What I’m saying about them is the truth.”

Being a reference is not that different from interviewing for a job yourself. “Use examples as much as possible,” says Mazur. This will be helpful in whatever argument you are trying to make about the candidates skills.

Nachuk adds that interviewers often ask behavioural questions. Things such as teamwork and communication skills seem to be key. Skill specific questions are also covered, but those will vary from role to role.

“It’s so much more diverse,” he says of today’s workforce. People have to be able to work with this new reality, which, in most cases, is something that cannot be measured or understood from a resumé. In cases like this, specific examples are even more important.

Concrete answers without hesitation are another must. “Don’t make it look like you’re reaching for something,” says Nachuk. There should be no doubt in the interviewer’s mind with regard to your position on the candidate.

Giving references are a tricky part of your leadership learning curve. The information you give a potential employer can make or break their candidacy for a role. However, if you stick to what you know about a candidate and their skills, you should be able to ensure that an organization makes the right hiring decision, for all parties involved.

Written by

Mira Saraf studied psychology and English at McGill University. When she graduated, she wanted to pursue journalism but somehow ended up working in Montreal's garment industry. From there, she moved to New York to attend FIT. She worked there for a year before moving back to Toronto to work for Winners. Two and a half years in she took over a year off to pursue writing education and a career in freelance writing. She has since returned to the industry and now works for Loblaw/Joe Fresh. She continues to write on a part time basis.

2 comments

  1. Danielle
    May 21, 2010 at 9:53 am

    The first time I was approached to be a reference for someone, I was first flattered and second kind of perturbed. I thought “Me? Really?”.

    Since then I’ve been asked to be a reference for around ten people, for job applications, post-grad applications (med school, teacher’s college) and passport applications.

    I’ve only ever been contacted once as someone’s reference. I was a little unprepared now that I think about it…but hopefully it worked out well for the individual.

  2. Jeleen Yu
    May 21, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Interesting article, Mira!

    I’ve always wondered what references usually say or do in the event that their past experience with the employee/colleague was a negative one. Good to know that honesty is key when dealing with these instances.

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