How to get good IT job references: 6 tips

How do you find good job references for your IT job search? Experts share advice on succeeding during reference checks
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CIO Managing Your Boss

Your professional reputation is like your DNA, Russell Reynolds Associates consultant Eric Sigurdson is fond of saying: You can’t change it.

That good name comes into play when potential employers start reaching out to your references. “There is a pattern of your behaviors and performance that everyone around you sees, observes, and evaluates,” Sigurdson says. “It’s important to remember that no matter how well you communicate, how well you position yourself, and how well you sell your capabilities during the hiring process, nothing is as relevant as the perceptions of others you’ve worked with.”

IT job references still matter

Although the process of picking up the phone to actually have a discussion about someone’s performance might seem antiquated in the age of LinkedIn recommendations, Google searches, and treasure troves of digital data on individuals, Sigurdson says that old-fashioned professional references are more in important than ever.

“We live in a complex time and the [IT leadership] job has gotten more and more difficult,” he points out. “Not everyone is great at everything, so it’s really important to try and suss out an individual’s strengths and weakness and be able to hire to support and complement those.” References are the best source of that intelligence.

[ Crush that interview. Download: IT job searching in 2019: A practical guide. ]

While it’s impossible to change the opinions and experiences of those you’ve worked with in the past, IT pros and IT leaders seeking new roles can prepare wisely. 

6 steps to good IT job references

1. Pick your best spokespeople as references

It may seem like a no-brainer, but putting forth the right references is key. “If someone has made job moves every four or five years, it should be relatively easy to find people they’ve worked with one job ago or someone at their current company that’s left to offer up,” says Sigurdson.

2. Provide some variety in references

Offer up people you have worked for, worked with as peers, and managed as direct reports.

Sigurdson likes to see a collection of people you have worked for, worked with as peers, and managed as direct reports. If you don’t offer up a 360-degree view of yourself via the references you offer, the hiring company or recruiter may find some on their own.

3. Consider external references

If you’ve been at the same company for many years (and if those you’ve worked with are still there), finding appropriate references can be trickier. In that case, Sigurdson advises thinking about vendors, consultants, and other partners who have seen your leadership at work.

4. Review – and perhaps trim – social connections

“References are easier to get than they ever have been in the past,” says Sigurdson. Recruiters and hiring managers can easily and quickly find folks they trust in your LinkedIn (or other social media) connections and discreetly reach out to them.

“Think about who’s in your network,” Sigurdson advises. Review any mutual connections you have with hiring managers or recruiters and make sure those are folks you think will present their experience with you in the best light. If they’re not, it may be time to remove them from your digital life.

5. Consider how references will answer tricky questions

Hiring managers and recruiters know that most job references the candidate provides will give only glowing praise unless pushed. So push they will. One of Sigurdson’s go-to questions for references is “What kinds of people should we surround this IT leader with to ensure he or she will succeed?” It’s a covert way to find out where a candidate might be lacking. The reference may say, “He needs a good finance person,” or “It would be great if you had a relationship manager because she’s so focused on technology.”

While you typically can’t address any concerns that arise at the late reference stage, it may be worth considering how your references might answer in order to present your strongest case during the interviewing stage.

6. Remember, personal perfection is not the goal

IT leaders working on difficult transformations or as change agents will naturally ruffle a few feathers. “By definition, you’re not going to make everyone happy,” Sigurdson says. Most hiring managers and recruiters understand that and will consider any negative input in that light. In some cases, Sigurdson will run a reference check on a reference to understand the full context of their comments. Nonetheless, IT leaders can do their due diligence by addressing issues related to difficult changes earlier on in the evaluation process.

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.