My 11-year-old came home the other day clutching a job application in his hand. He told me that he had to fill it out because he was applying for the job of computer technician for his 5th grade class. We reviewed the application together. It was pretty standard job application fare: name, contact information, skills/qualifications and of course references.
He needed 2 references. We couldn’t reach his baseball coach, but after a quick phone call across the state to Grandpa, he had 1 reference. The application was due the next day, so I reluctantly agreed to be a reference for him. I mean, I’m his mother. Of course I think he’s wonderful. So how valuable would that reference be?
But then again, I also know way too much about him. Bless my naive son—he had absolutely no idea the damage I could have done, if he were an actual job applicant in the real world.
I think it’s a point that many real-life job applicants fail to understand as well, especially those new to the job market that may not have a whole lot of options for their reference list. They think that asking a long-time friend or relative might be a good move—“Hey, they’ve known me a long time, they can vouch for me”. Sure, but they also know all of your dirty little secrets. Maybe they’ll be discreet enough to avoid mentioning anything bad. But then again, maybe they won’t.
When I mentor young people seeking their first professional job, I always counsel them to consider:
Who in your world will paint you in the best possible light with the most specific examples?
People tend to look for references that will do the “positive painting” but overlook the specificity part. If the reference can only give a general, glowing report, it won’t be of much use to the job applicant. So, I try to help job applicants think through their list of contacts with an eye towards concrete accomplishments.
Back to my kid: a few days after he turned in his job application, he interviewed for the job. He must have done well because he got the job. His teacher never called me for that reference. But it would have been OK. I used to work in HR. I know how to give specific, concrete examples of an applicant’s qualifications. Even if he is my son.
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