If the hiring process were like cooking, then you could think of job references and job recommendations like cheese: When they're good, they're a nice final flourish that may round out the dish. When they're bad, they leave a foul taste in your mouth and throw the whole meal out of sync. A well-meaning reference could shift a candidate's chances dramatically, which is why job seekers have to be careful whom they ask to serve as a reference, and why references have to be methodical about what they might say.
Remember these tips:
Practice. Conscientious job seekers should give you the information you need to give the best recommendation possible, and anything they know, you should know. The candidate should provide an up-to-date résumé, the listing for the job and the hiring manager's name and position in the organization. If a candidate doesn't proffer these things, request them, and also ask whether he or she has an idea of when a reference checker might contact you, and using what method.
Once armed with this information, it's time you assess the candidate's qualifications to determine what you'll say. "If you were their boss, look back on their performance reviews, and refresh your memory of how they did," says Paul McDonald, senior executive director for the staffing firm Robert Half International. Take written notes of what you want to say, or do a dry run in your head – whatever is necessary to ensure the first time you're getting your thoughts together isn't when you're speaking with the hiring manager. You are, by some degree, an extension and reflection of the person you're recommending, and if you sound like a babbling twit, you're not being as helpful as you might have hoped.
According to McDonald, it's a good practice to imagine yourself as the one checking references. "I'd prepare answers for the questions that I myself would ask if I were doing a reference check," he says. "If I were conducting it, I would describe the job duties and responsibilities, go over the company's mission and then ask the reference, 'How do you feel about the potential fit of this job applicant for this position?'"
[Read: What's "Fit" Got to Do With It?]
"It's easy to talk about a candidate's technical abilities, but be sure to also prepare to answer behavioral questions," McDonald adds. "How do they act under pressure? What's their working style? What examples do you have of when the candidate has been proactive?" Make a case for the job seeker's verbal and written communication skills – particularly if they're solid – since every employer is looking to hire someone with gilt-edged communication chops. "Many savvy reference checkers will ask you to grade the candidate's verbal and written communication skills on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the highest," McDonald says.
Tell the truth. Yes, you're rooting for a protégé. But stay mindful of how selling that protégé's qualities could become exaggeration. Imagine that the employer takes you for your word, then entrusts his or her new hire with job responsibilities that are way above the new hire's abilities. It's also possible that you'll appear disingenuous – hiring managers hear plenty of platitudes about strong work ethics, fast learners and team players, so many can distinguish between what's true and what's a tale.
A smart hiring manager will also want your opinion of the candidate's weaknesses, so be careful: Finesse, but don't fib. "A responsible reference knows how to acknowledge the weaknesses," McDonald says. If possible, look for a way to mention weakness in a positive context: the steps the candidate has taken to improve, for instance, or his or her receptiveness to constructive criticism.
The job seeker should have alerted a hiring manager to the type of professional relationship he or she has with each reference, and an experienced hiring manager shouldn't ask you questions outside the realm of what you're expected to know. If such a question squeezes through the cracks – for instance, managerial queries about previous salary, when you weren't the candidate's boss – just admit that you're unable to speak on that subject.