Cultivating Professional References

One of my top recruiters just dealt with a situation where someone refused to provide professional references. 

And not in a nice way.  She was one of these ‘30 year’ folks who felt her time in the industry should speak for itself. But let me ask you this…regardless of whether someone has 3 or 30 years in the industry, why would any prospective employer only accept the candidate’s word when it comes to proving skills and competency in the role? 

It still surprises me when candidates don’t understand the importance of being able to provide strong professional references, so I thought I would pick up my pen in order to provide some insight and support on the topic. 

When Should You be Prepared to Provide References?

Always. Yes, I said it.…Always

While being prepared to provide references was once only a formality that many candidates considered as an afterthought, being able to provide strong work references has become increasingly important. Some sources state that approximately 20% of candidates are rejected after a reference check. I would state that we eliminate approximately 40 percent of our candidate pool at the reference stage, so I implore that you don’t make the critical mistake of undervaluing the need to provide professional references.  

It is also important to note that the results from speaking to proper work references aren’t why so many candidates are rejected.  Our firm often rejects candidates because either the candidate didn’t follow our instructions during the references submission process and/or the type of individuals provided by the candidate were not appropriate work references.  

Who should be considered a Professional Reference? 

While many companies allow colleagues to be professional references, we don’t.  Professional references should be able to speak to your capabilities as a CRA, and while colleagues may have some insight as to how others respond to you and your work effort, the most important reference is someone who has provided supervision or work direction to you.  

This doesn’t necessarily have to be direct supervisors, but should be individuals who provided some type of work direction to you such as Clinical Leads, Clinical Project Managers, CRA Managers, etc. You should look for individuals who can speak to the way you handle workplace challenges, your track record of meeting timelines, and your ability to provide high quality deliverables. 

Our firm also asks for CRAs to provide site references. The sites where CRAs monitor are well positioned to provide feedback regarding the CRA’s industry knowledge and competency, responsiveness, and work ethic.  

How Do You Select Appropriate Work References?

When selecting references, be sure to actually speak to the individuals you would like to serve in this role prior to providing their information to a potential employer.  You will want to openly discuss their view of your competency, work performance, and ability to build effective rapport with team members. Speaking with a future reference can be a great way to gain professional insight, and is an enormously positive way to emphasize your strengths as well as to develop a strategy to minimize your weaknesses. 

It is your responsibility as a candidate to cultivate relationships worthy of a good reference. Your references will provide a glimpse as to what your personality and work ethic truly are outside of the interview process, so be picky. Here is a list of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to providing  strong work references:

  • Do follow the instructions given by the hiring team, being sure to provide complete, correct and accurate information in the format requested. 
  • Do pick references who are well spoken, and practice typical reference questions with them if you want to be thorough.
  • Do discuss the details of the job opportunity with your references, so that they know the context in which to convey your strengths and minimize weaknesses. For example, if the assignment is to re-monitor or rescue an oncology project, ensuring your references are aware of the scope will enable them to speak to your oncology experience as well as your experience rescuing projects.
  • Do remember to ask permission to use someone as a reference, confirming that they will respond to the hiring team when someone reaches out to them. We often see individuals identified as references decline to provide testimony because they were never asked by the candidate…and this does negatively impact the CRA’s candidacy.
  • Don’t pick a family member, girlfriend / boyfriend, or anyone who has either a) not witnessed your work performance or b) doesn’t fall into the categories / roles provided by the hiring team.
  • Do pick a reference who you have a positive professional relationship with and who you are absolutely sure will speak highly of you.
  • Don’t pick an employer or coworker with whom the relationship ended badly. This happens more frequently than you think. I just recently took a reference from a supervisor who simply stated: “I don’t know why she is using me as a reference because I fired her for non-performance.” 
  • Do select supervisory references as well as site references.  If you are applying for a management position it is also recommended to supply references of past employees or direct reports.
  • Do keep your references as current as possible. A couple of years ago I had a gal provide a supervisor reference from 1998.  Jeepers, I was a bartender in 1998…anyone who would recommend me from that long ago would be recommending a ‘different me.’  We actually require our candidates to provide references from their most recently completed project so that we have current and up-to-date information on the candidate.
  • Do provide references quickly once requested as a delay may have a negative impact on your candidacy.

In Closing

Ideally a reference will be someone who has an impressive position or reputation themselves. For example, selecting the Director of Monitoring as a reference will be more impressive than using the Lead CRA – as long as the Director can speak to your performance. While this is not a requirement, it is a great way to expand and legitimize your professional network. 

And make sure to take advantage of your professional references! They are great resources for advice as well as potential mentorships. Having good references is among one of the strongest recruiting tips we can offer CRA candidates because of the insight that they offer.

Gathering professional references and maintaining those relationships can seem like a lot of effort, but the payoff is tenfold. You are surely a great CRA with a stellar track record, so why not boost your brand by providing potential employers with other reputable sources who can echo your experiences and provide testimony to your outstanding performance? These details go a long way towards standing out from the candidate crowd and securing that perfect position with ease.