Tips on reference calls

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Q:  One of my former employees has asked that I respond to reference calls for her.  I am wondering how much of a time commitment this will be.  When I answer a reference call, what should I be prepared for?

A:  Providing a professional reference can help a former colleague, team member, direct report, or associate land a new job.  Most employers will check several professional references before a job offer is extended.

Regarding time commitment, most reference calls are about 10 to 15 minutes in length, unless you had worked with that employee extensively for many years.  If this former employee worked for you for three years, I would expect the call to last about 10 to 15 minutes.  If you worked with this former employee for 25 years, I would expect the call to be closer to 30 minutes.  The length of a call can also vary based on the level of the former employee.  Most professionals contacting references understand that the person providing the reference is often unable to devote more than 15 to 30 minutes to a reference call.

It is sometimes helpful to plan for the reference call in advance.  You will hopefully have a good connection (especially when using a cell phone) and minimal interruptions (e.g., other incoming calls, a noisy background, or lots of distractions).

It is also helpful to ask about the role that your former coworker is considering.  Is it similar to the role they were in when they worked for you?  Is it the same industry?  If this former employee has a LinkedIn profile, it might be helpful to review their profile to jog your memory on their career history and education.

You may want to talk to your former employee in advance of receiving the reference call.  What would be helpful for you to focus on?  Ask them to explain the role, the company and what should you highlight.  Sometimes when we make a reference call, the former colleague or manager heads down an unrelated path and while they share interesting info, it is not incredibly helpful.

If this person had key strengths which are memorable, those might be worth discussing.  If this person had an outstanding work ethic, you should mention that.  If this person had outstanding interpersonal skills, that would likely be helpful.  Most callers will also press you for a development need or weakness.  Be ready to provide examples of both strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, asking to serve as a professional reference is a testament to your management and mentoring skills.  This person must value your input.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.