A heart-felt note to professional references

“…Anything worth doing is worth doing well…” Philip Stanhope

One of the first lessons I learned after arriving in Canada as an international student is the strategic role that professional references play in shaping the career prospects and destinies of individuals. As a graduate student, I relied heavily on my professors and advisors for references to support my applications for study permit renewals, visas, permanent resident applications, scholarships, and even professional job applications. I was intentional in building strong relationships and giving my very best to tasks and responsibilities assigned to me. In my years of serving as referees for others. I have concluded that not everyone understands the weight of responsibility on the shoulders of referees. Most folks believe that serving as professional reference is simply about writing reference letters or just attesting the qualities of an applicant via telephone or virtual interviews, unaware of what professional referees put on the line when they agree to serve as references for others. So, let me seize this opportunity to pause here and speak directly to professional references and/or those who aspire to serve as one. 


Dear Professional References, 

Thank you for always serving as referees for your trainees, colleagues, subordinates, and/or senior colleagues. Your altruistic service and commitment to seeing others thrive in their careers is commendable. While you have unique opportunity to strategically shape the career trajectory of others, the untold burden of preparing references and connecting with hiring organizations while expending your professional equity in the process for each individual applicant, isn’t lost on me.  Sometimes, you get to provide multiple but different references for the same candidate as you support their job/academic/award applications. Some of you even end up having multiple applicants ask you for references for the same position!. At other times, you are faced the harrowing decision of declining requests for reference from others, knowing fully well the implications for their careers. In keeping up with these commitments, there are important considerations that you may find helpful in grounding your decision making and response to request for references. 

Serving as a reference is sponsorship. According to Professor Rosalind Chow, professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University, sponsorship is a form of intermediated impression management in which sponsors act as brand managers and publicists for their protégés.  In your capacity as a a referee, you have the unique opportunity to attest to the fit of the candidate to the job requirements and amplify the qualities this individual brings to the position. As a credible leader and expert in the field, your words and experience working or training the candidate goes a long way in shaping the perception of the hiring committee or manager about the candidate. It is a unique power that can shape career trajectories, and ultimately the destinies of the individuals that trust you to serve as their professional reference. Please use that power responsibly. 

Your professional credibility is always on the line. Despite your hard work in supporting others, only a few understand that your professional credibility is sometime at stake as well. For example, providing a stellar reference for a candidate who go on to land the position or award but ends up not living up to the expectation in the role makes it increasingly harder to convince the same organization to take your reference seriously when next you recommend another candidate for a position/award. Of course, there will be exceptions to this situations, but consistently providing references to folks who continue to put in below-par performances., may ultimately put a dent on your reputation and credibility, especially if you work in a small professional community. Please take time to evaluate if you know the candidate(s) enough to commit to serving as a referee. Alternatively, consider providing references that only speak to your experience working with or training this individual.

You have an ethical responsibility to the public and your profession. I was once asked by a candidate to consider giving him a stellar reference even though his professional performance was below par. I politely declined such a request on the grounds that it contravenes my values as an individual and the professional ethics of my job. I can only comment on my experience working with him, which wasn’t positive experience. As professional reference, you might have also experienced a similar and awkward situation. You have an ethical responsibility not to embellish or misrepresent candidates applying for a job/position/award. Such lies constitute a breach of trust placed in you by the hiring organization who consider you a trusted expert and leader in your professional circles . Violating such trust may have ripple effects on the hiring organization, the applicant, the industry, and even your professional credibility as an expert and leader. 

A position of sacred trust. It’s important to also remember that applicants who approach you for reference have aspirations for a better future and successful careers. They consider you someone who they can trust to support their aspirations and career goals. It’s a trust that you should endeavor not to betray, especially when you have committed to serving as a reference. If you cannot, in good faith, provide good or stellar reference for an individual, it is better to have a candid conversation with that individual and let him/her know where you stand. Hypocritically promising to provide good references while doing the opposite isn’t right either. Make sure you treat these individuals with respect, honesty, and understanding, regardless of your experience working or training (with) them. 

In conclusion, when next you are asked to serve as a reference, please take time to reflect on these considerations. If you are conflicted or not sure you are the right person to serve in that capacity or you, consider having an honest conversation with the applicant about the request, explaining the reasons why you cannot serve as his/her referee. Alternatively, you may advise them to reach out to someone else who may be more familiar with the application. On the other hand, if you are able to provide reference, make sure you give your very best to it. After all what’s worth doing at all is worth doing well.