When I was applying to graduate school, I needed three references. The only work I had done was not the reference-generating kind, like signing autographs for Esther Williams and chopping heads off chickens. So the references were a real stretch for me, and I ended up asking my boyfriend to write one.
I had done work for him, technically speaking, so he wrote it as a former employer. Amost all the recommendation forms had a section that said, “How would you rank this person among all the people you have worked with?” I demanded that he say I was in the top 1%.
He said that it was absurd to put top 1% because no one would believe it.
I said he was wrong. And then I raised the bar by having a tantrum until he agreed to say in the written part of the recommendation that I was the most well-read person he had ever met.
But it turns out that my boyfriend was probably right, and the recommendation was, indeed, over the top. People do not like sterling recommendations, according to a study by Cleveland State University (via gradschoolstory.com). An endorsement is more believable if it includes something negative about the person. The example in the study is “Sometimes, John can be difficult to get along with.” That seems like a really bad comment, but it actually got a better response from hiring managers than a reference with no negative comments.
This rule of thumb sounds right to me. When I was hiring, if I called for a reference and the person sounded like they were reading a canned speech I discounted the whole thing and called another person on the list. I was always hunting for someone with candor.
Legal advisors tell companies to give out only the title and dates of employment. However David Perry , executive recruiter and author of Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters, tells me that he has never had a situation where he couldn’t get someone to say more than that after a little bit of pushing. In fact, CareerJournal provides interesting examples of how human resource representatives toe the legal line and still give a terrible reference if they want to: “They’ll say, ‘Are you sure she gave you my name?’ or “Check his references very, very carefully,” or ‘Hang on, let me get the legal file.’ ”
So even if the person giving the reference is not your boyfriend, if you know him very well, you can still do a little coaching. For example, give a suggested answer for when they are asked about your weakness. And if you are worried you are going to get a bad reference from an old employer, hire a reference check firm to check your own references. (In that vein you will be happy to know that when necessary, I still get a good reference from that boyfriend.)