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Advice / Job Search / Networking

The Avoidable Mistake Smart People Make When Asking for References

A few months ago, a former co-worker, someone I hired and used to manage, in fact, reached out to me and asked if I’d serve as a job reference for her. Of course I said yes. She was a terrific hire and I would’ve brought her with me to my new company if given the opportunity. Soon after I agreed to provide a glowing reference, the hiring manager contacted me; we set up a time to speak the following day.

A couple of weeks went by and then another—I wasn’t counting, but I know some time passed before it occurred to me that she’d never let me know “how the rest of this progresses,” as she’d promised to do. Her social media account strongly suggested that she was happily engrossed in her job, no word of anything new, and I wondered if maybe she didn’t get the other position. If so, it was understandable that she hadn’t gotten in touch with me—or was it?

I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, figuring it would be kind of crappy for her to email me to let me know that the position was offered to someone else, but I was too curious to let it go. Plus, I thought, when would I hear from her again? When she needed another reference? The thought was unsettling, but I tried not to let it taint my opinion of her as a smart, professional woman.

When I followed up, she said she “forgot to share the news.” It turns out that she’d gotten an offer but turned it down on account of the position being more junior than she initially realized. “Thank you, thank you for the recommendation!” she wrote before saying something about making things work at her current company for the time being.

My job was literally done, and I guess I appreciated the belated thanks, but for weeks afterward I couldn’t help feeling used. I tried to talk myself out of it. After all, it really wasn’t that big a deal that she’d failed to keep me in the loop, right? Wrong. I reached out to Muse Career Coach and founder of Parachute Coaching, Lauren Laitin, who was adamant that “there’s no question,” about how this should’ve played out (radio silence, not surprisingly, not a part of it). Laitin says the onus is on the candidate to “say thank you and tell him or her that you'll follow up once you learn more, and then say thank you again” as soon as he knows the employer’s been in touch with the reference.

Laitin goes on to say that, “Depending on the level of job, a candidate might even send flowers or a bottle of wine or simply a thank you note.” In my case, a thank you note would’ve sufficed. If you’re a job seeker, no need to go broke sending gifts to the people. Not only did I not receive a thank you (email or handwritten note), I was left in the dark about whether or not she’d gotten the job she was so excited about. According to Laitin, “Whether the position was offered or not, the candidate should follow up to alert the reference. It’s also an opportunity for the person providing the reference to offer his or her assistance again in the future. So it’s a win-win.” I’m pretty certain that I would’ve felt a lot better had I heard from her first.

Although I respect the fact that everyone is busy and that emailing a reference after a long job search isn’t your top priority, you miss the mark when you completely fail to follow up. After all, this person did you a favor. It’s not enough to know how to ask someone to be a reference: You need to know what to do after the fact.

Think about it, you reach out to the hiring manager after an interview, and hopefully you’re in the habit of extending a thank you to networking contacts who introduce you to someone in their network. So now, in case you didn’t know, you’ll want to add this to your list: Making sure to thank your references and keeping them updated on your job-search progress. It’s not only polite, but it’s in your own best interest if you want to ask them again in the future.

Photo of upset person courtesy of PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty Images.