Where and how to get work references?

Here you are: You polished, targeted and tailored your resume, you prepared yourself for the interview, doing research on the company’s background and organizational culture, you dressed professionally and did great in the interview…now they are asking you the dreaded question: “could you provide a list of your work references?, we will make a decision after checking them”

You leave the company with a bitter-sweet feeling: “where will I get these references from?” “I don’t know anybody in Canada!” Things get worse when the employer asks for “Canadian” references, and they tell you that references should have known you for at least two years in a work capacity.

This is a common immigrant job-seeker situation. It is easy to despair and become pessimistic. However, none of those feelings will help. What will help is to know in advance that this will happen, and plan for it.

After all, thousands if not millions of immigrants have came to Canada and managed to get a job, some of them, a professional job. And most of these individuals were in the same situation as you are right now: they were new, didn’t know anybody and had only back-home references.

Who can be a work-reference and who can’t:

References can come from: Ex or current managers, supervisors, co-workers, colleagues, clients, suppliers, instructors or classmates, in that order of priority.

The rule of thumb is that whoever you select has to be somebody who has either worked with you or has observed you at work for at least two years. This means you can choose somebody from your home-country, because chances are you will have more people there than in Canada. For Canadian references, you can use the same list but also add your volunteering coordinator, people from your church or temple with whom you have already built a close relationship and instructors or classmates if you are taking courses. Your employment or settlement counsellor may not be good referees unless you have known them for a long time and have had the opportunity to show your strengths as a professional. However, these last ones may be considered more as “character” or “personal” reference and not as an acceptable work reference.

Another guideline is that the individuals have to be available for when the employer calls/emails and they need to be comfortable answering the reference check questions, so it is much better if you select somebody you trust and with whom you had a good relationship.

People not accepted as a reference or who may not perform well and may hurt your selection process are: family members or friends and people you have known for a very short period of time and/or with whom you don’t have a good relationship.

How the process works:

Once you have the list of potential referees, start calling or emailing them prior to applying for any job. You can say “Hi (name), how are you doing? You know, I am in Canada now and I am looking for a job. Employers may need a few referees to check on my suitability to the job, and as we (worked/studied) together, I was wondering if you feel comfortable being my referee.” If they say yes, ask them: do they have a particular day/hour when they prefer to be called? Any language choice (may need an interpreter), or do they prefer to be contacted via email?

One thing that may help them to be prepared is to send a list of potential questions in advance. You can actually answer some of those questions; this will save them time and help them to remember good things about you.

The list of three to five referees needs to be handed to employers after the interview (and never with the resume or during the application process). The PIPA (Personal Information Protection Act) gives you control over your personal information by requiring organizations to obtain your consent to collect, use or disclose personal information about you. This means that employers need to ask you to sign consent form before they can check your references and background. When employers skip this step, you can politely mention: “is there any form or paperwork I should sign when I provide my list of referees?”

What type of questions employers may ask about you:

The questions vary with the employer, the position and the person doing the references checks. However, most of the times the questions go from confirming that you actually worked in that company and position (and when) to asking about your performance and why did you leave. They may ask about punctuality, time-management, and ability to handle conflict and solve problems, teamwork and independence. Employers may also ask about your achievements, why they would recommend you, and whether they have a concern for you to do the job for which you are applying. 

Employers are not allowed, and shouldn’t be asking about things that may be used as discrimination, such as your age, marital status, religion, sexual orientation, gender or ethnicity and political views among other personal questions.

How you can get Canadian references:

There is no magic wand for this. Every immigrant experiences this barrier, it is not the barrier, but the way you handle it what makes the difference.

Canadian references can be obtained through volunteering, internships, networking, studying at Canadian institutions and getting involved with the community as a whole. Make sure you start doing all these things as soon as you arrive, as they will help you to build confidence, will provide you with Canadian experience and local references and will allow you to navigate the system easier.

When handing your references, it is much better to provide a mix of home-country and Canadian references. Not having any references from your country may sound suspicious to your potential employer. And not having anybody from Canada may tell them you are too new or have not been proactive and involved in Canadian issues yet (therefore, they may assume you “lack Canadian experience”)

Letters of reference:

Many newcomers come with a pile of great reference letters, and feel appalled when employers don’t even look at them. Letters are great when they are updated (not older than six months), have the company’s letterhead and are signed by a supervisor or the company’s owner. However, more and more employers want to talk to a real person and compare the information they see in the letter, as letters may be incomplete or too old.

The best use for these letters is the portfolio. Create a professional portfolio with quality copies (colour if possible) of your certificates, job descriptions, reference letters and summary of skills, organized by time and company and bring this binder along with your resume to the interviews. Make sure to have all the originals safe at home.

After handing your references:

Don’t forget to keep in touch with the people who are acting as your referees. Send them “thank you” emails or phone them regularly. And don’t forget about them after getting the job!

When an employer asks for references, this is usually a good sign. Most employers have 80% of their hiring decision made before reference checking, so this step is important. A bad reference can make-or -break a good candidate. Follow up after one week: have they made a decision? Where in the process is your application? Do they have any feedback for you? Has the references-check been made?

Building future references:

Don’t forget that the economy is changing, and the job-search process is following its footsteps. Jobs are no longer secure and you need to keep building good references even after getting a job. References are built by being honest and true to yourself while ensuring others feel comfortable by contributing to the creation of a safe and inviting work environment for all.

Doing your job the best you can and caring about the impact your job has in the society as a whole is the best reference you can build for yourself.

Note: this article has also been published on the Canadian Immigrant magazine, May issue (2013) print edition

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