In today's competitive job market, hiring managers often choose from among multiple candidates with similar skills. The interview remains their most important tool for making that decision. While most IT professionals are well versed in interview basics, many overlook the finer points of these meetings.
Stories by Dave Willmer
When competition for IT opportunities is intense, the value of every possible edge is magnified. A recommendation from someone within a potential employer can make the difference between landing an interview and continuing frustration. In many cases, job seekers are calling on the outermost reaches of their networks — and sometimes beyond — to find a way in. Some IT professionals are fielding so many requests that they are suffering from "referral fatigue".
In such a pressurised environment, many job candidates, as well as the contacts they approach for referrals, aren't sure where to draw the line. A job seeker might not know how or whom to ask for a recommendation, while a contact within an employer might not know when or how to turn down a request. All of these whos, hows and whens become easier to answer when both parties keep the why of referrals firmly in mind: to match a qualified professional with the right position.
A few simple guidelines can make for a more effective, less stressful referral process.
Build a foundation first. Make a point of establishing rapport with a contact before making a referral request. Asking for a favour shouldn't be one of your first interactions with a contact. Someone who doesn't know you well — and who might be fulfilling your request reluctantly — is unlikely to provide a compelling referral.
Go one-on-one. It may be tempting to avoid direct, personal requests in favour of a blanket email to everyone in your network. After all, such an approach can help you reach more people more quickly. But many members of your network will assume that others have already offered their help and may not respond to your message. An individual approach is more likely to lead to success.
Help them help you. Providing a referral shouldn't be hard work. Don't make your contact dig for information about you. Even if your contact knows you well, provide him or her with specific "speaking points" about what you can offer the employer. Brief details about your relevant skills and achievements will allow the person to "sell" your qualifications to a hiring manager and make a much stronger impression than positive generalisations.
Take "no" for an answer. Be aware that not everyone can or will help you. Don't take a rejected request personally or let it end a potential relationship. By approaching the process stoically, rather than with an air of pleading desperation, you're more likely to encourage the kind of well-considered recommendations that can convince a hiring manager you're worth a close look.
On the other side of the coin, there are also some dos and don'ts for those who are asked to give referrals. They include:
Feel free to say no. If you're in a position to provide referrals, don't feel guilty about turning down requests. That way, you'll protect the value of your recommendations as well as your reputation within the company. If you're not genuinely enthusiastic about a recommendation, it isn't likely to be an effective one anyway. Politely let the person know that you're not in a position to help them at the moment.
Offer other resources. If you can't provide a referral, consider putting the person in contact with others who might be able to help, or let your contact know of resources that could be useful in the search for the right position.
Do research when necessary. Because your reputation is on the line, make sure you know enough about the person to confidently recommend them. If the individual is a new or distant contact, review the person's CV and, if possible, conduct an informal interview to learn more about his or her qualifications. Make sure you're familiar with the person's skills, experience, work habits and personality before making a recommendation to a manager within your firm.
As referrals have become a hot commodity in IT, job seekers and recommenders alike are tempted to treat them "in bulk", either sending out mass requests or accepting such requests without carefully considering the qualifications and needs at hand. In contrast, when the process is approached on an individual, one-on-one basis, it's much more likely to benefit the candidate, the contact and the employer in the long run.
Competition for IT jobs has intensified, so companies that are hiring expect to find candidates who can exceed the technical requirements of a position. While soft skills have long been touted by IT employers, today's harsh economic realities have made those abilities more valuable than ever. IT professionals who know which soft skills are currently the most important and why — and who are willing to work to improve those abilities — can find that they have a distinct advantage over similarly qualified peers.