Many job searchers just whip up their reference list, leaving out the most important step in the process: asking permission before using someone as a reference, even if it is moot that he will provide one, such as with a residency or ED director. Asking serves two purposes: confirming that the person is willing to act as a reference and having an opportunity to influence how that reference will read.
When asking someone to act as your reference, be clear about which areas of your performance you want addressed. You are actually asking for him to write an initial letter of reference and be available to take calls from potential employers. Ask him to be as detailed as possible, and don't be afraid to ask what kind of reference you can expect. If someone is not willing to speak highly of you, he will usually decline to act as a reference.
Request that each person put the letter of reference on departmental or other appropriate stationery. The letter can be addressed to “To Whom It May Concern” if it will be used with multiple prospective employers, but a targeted reference letter to a specific potential employer is more effective and impressive. It is essential that each person provide his full title, institution of employment, address, telephone number, and email address.
If you are considering multiple positions, be certain to advise those acting as your references that they will be required to respond to several employers, and provide them with the names of the people who will be receiving the letters. That way, the letters can be personalized, and your reference team won't be caught unaware when the phone calls come. This level of preparation and attention is always impressive to a potential employer, and it demonstrates your attention to detail and serious interest in their specific job.
Many graduating residents compile a list of references with phone numbers for anyone to contact, but I highly discourage this practice because you have no way of knowing what will be said. With a letter of reference in hand, you can be fairly certain the follow-up conversation will resemble the letter.
Graduating residents often bring the same level of training and experience to the table, and a strong reference is an essential sales tool. Graduates can make the most of this sales tool by sending their reference letters to prospective employers before going on an interview. Candidates who submit outstanding references with a CV often get more interviews as well as more comprehensive and positive interviews. Strong references will heighten interest and spur an employer to go the extra mile to sell their opportunity to this individual. It also significantly decreases the time frame, at the end of the interview process, necessary for making offers and closing deals.
Currently employed physicians conducting confidential job searches will want to secure references from those colleagues who can be counted on to retain confidentiality with a current or past employer or training programs. Once an employer makes a formal offer that the candidate verbally accepts, access to the current supervisor is provided and expected. Prior to offer and acceptance, no prospective employer is allowed to contact the current employer without the candidate's permission. Emergency medicine is a small world, however, and doctors like to talk to other doctors, particularly if it's about someone they might know. If you are interviewing with an employer who knows any of your current colleagues, the potential employer may want to have an “unofficial” conversation about you. It is important to make very clear that no contact is to be allowed until you have given your permission. Failure to follow those instructions by a prospective employer that results in the loss of or interference with your current position is actionable.
The ideal reference should emphasize the physician's areas of growth and strength. It can even address areas of weakness, highlighting successful efforts to improve. Equally important is a discussion of the physician's interpersonal skills, not just with colleagues, but with superiors, staff, patients, and their families. It astounds me how many references concentrate on clinical skills and totally ignore the ability to communicate. References should also address documentation; you want to note your ability to handle coding, your computer skills, and the timeliness with which you handle documentation.
Each reference also should state the nature and length of the relationship with the candidate. The reference obviously should be pertinent to the individual candidate, with no evidence of a generic approach. “Cookie-cutter” letters of reference are more damaging than most people know. They literally say, “I am not important enough to warrant attention.” That's hardly inspiring.
If you have negatives in your background, like a probationary period during residency, substance abuse, or other situations that required disciplinary action, the chances are good that they will come to light. Never try to hide or ignore a negative. It will nearly always surface at some point, and will be far more damaging if you don't bring it up. It is much better to deal with an issue from an offensive position than from a defensive position. Put any negative history on the table before a prospective employer has a chance to ask about it. This strategy puts you in control, allowing you to present the information in a more advantageous manner. Present the information honestly, emphasize what you learned, and explain how you overcame the problem. You are then perceived as someone who learns from his mistakes and takes responsibility for them.
Set up an appointment with anyone you plan to use as a reference. Be clear that you fully expect each of them to include the negative issue in the reference, as you would, but ask each to detail your road to improvement and evaluate your current status. No one wants to write a lousy reference for a colleague. By conferring directly about the issue, you make their job easier. Not all negative issues can be turned into positives; I was contacted by a physician several years ago who had 14 pending malpractice judgments. Handled correctly and responsibly, references can be one of the greatest sales tools at an emergency physician's disposal, no matter the level of experience. Choose your references wisely, keep some control over the content, and always thank a reference for his time and contribution to your job search, preferably with a personal note. Taking the time to put pen to paper makes a stronger impression than verbal thanks or a quick email.
Next month: How to provide a strong, effective reference.