You have been a loyal employee for Fox Tool and Die for many years. You have worked your way through college working for them, as a matter of fact, all five years. You’ve even made it to machine operator/line supervisor. You’ve worked hard, put in long hours for them. You’ve always been there on time, and worked without so much as one writeup–at least as far as you know.
But time has moved on. It’s five years later, and it’s time to acquire an entry level position in your field, which is management. Graduation’s staring you in the face, like an unwanted admirer that won’t leave you alone. You have been applying for work at different places, both in your college town, and your home city as well. There are a lot of management positions that require references, letters of recommendations, or both. You want one from your current boss, most definitely.
Or do you?
There are people who would make good recommenders for you. They genuinely liked you, admired your work ethic, and loved how you would always get things done around there. You want someone who will genuinely put in a good word or two for you, for, as one of my cousins always loved to say, “It’s not what you know, but rather who you know.” What you don’t want is a boss who only has a lukewarm attitude towards you, or is coming from a place of mere tolerance.
What this paper aims to do is to help the job seeker cull out a list of most desired recommenders, so-so references, and undesirable references–people who would most likely say, “No” to you anyway. For example, I would not want to ask the boss who fired me for falling asleep on the job for a recommendation. That, indeed, would not be smart.
So, you ask, who exactly should I look for in seeking references or recommendations? I would search for employers that I had a cordial working relationship with. For this, what I highly recommend you do as you read this article is to sit down with pen and paper in hand and begin to list some traits about every place you’ve ever worked. Let’s say you’ve worked five places in your relatively young adult life. What I will need you to do, then, is to number your paper from 1-5. On Item 1, write the name of your employer, your most immediate supervisor while you worked there. Jot down everything you remember, both good and bad, about that working relationship. Go back in your memory. Note little things, such as how he greeted you in the morning. If he basically gave you a cold, yet polite “Hi,” then that is a pretty good indicator that he didn’t count you among his most valuable employees, especially if you notice more warmth in his interaction with the other workers.
Was this boss always on your case about something, even if it was just the fact that you missed a hole or two on your belt buckle? Then that should alert you that there may be someone even better that you could use. This person, indeed, is probably not the best person to recommend you.
Did you get fired from this position? That’s a no-brainer. Do not under any circumstances use this person as a reference.
But also you should refrain from using any employer as a reference that has a record of you being written up for anything–especially being late. Indeed, if there are any occurrences, customer complaints, or disciplinary actions on your record there–such as writeups, suspensions, verbal or written warnings, you are not very likely to receive a good letter of recommendation from them, even if you later improved your ways.
Instead, find employers who usually compliment you on your work. I am a substitute teacher by trade. There is this one principal in particular, who came in an observed me one Friday morning in December 2007, teaching a math class. Now mind you, I am not good in math, so it must have been the Grace of God moving in me that day. She later complimented me by saying, “Mr. Koolbreeze, I loved what I saw you doing with those kids in that math classroom today.” There were more compliments to come when I came there to teach on subsequent days. It became obvious to me that this person was ripe to ask for a reference–and possibly even a recommendation in the future.
For that is what potential employers look for–people who can say good things about you, employers that you’ve worked for in the past. By me coming in on time, and instead of babysitting–actually having something to teach, even though I am not the best in math–I was able to gain a reference, and a potential recommendation from not just a principal, but one with a Ph. D, no less.
Your recommendations should, indeed, come from those with clout. If you want to get a job as a teacher, for example, go to a principal, or an assistant. Go by whomever you have the warmest relationship with.
Also, go by who has observed you the most. If your immediate supervisor happens to be that person, roll with him. If that person happens to be the senior manager, you best ask him (or her). That is very important. Don’t ask your pastor (unless you’ve worked under him in a way that is significant to the job you are trying to get). And definitely don’t ask your mom and dad for a reference. They are relatives–employers want professional contacts. If you are acquiring a position as a teacher, ask someone who has seen and heard you teach.
References are powerful tools to furthering your career. And since, as I said earlier, it’s not about what you know, it’s all about who you know–the best thing I can tell you is: “Never burn your bridges.”