Someone I worked with over a decade ago recently asked me to be a reference for her. My interaction with this individual was marginal at best--I was the board chair of a nonprofit and she was the bookkeeper. Our interaction was limited to a review of the financials she produced, which the executive director typically presented to the board. Before I declined her request, I thought about what I would say when I was contacted by a prospective employer. I ran down my list of questions that I ask on behalf of clients when I'm checking a reference for a potential new employee. I realized that after I answered my own first question, "How long have you known this individual?" I would be at a loss how to answer the second question, "How would you describe this candidate's reliability and dependability?" As for one of my last questions, "What value to you believe this candidate would add to our organization?" I wouldn't be able to provide any information whatsoever. "I'm not sure, we haven't ever really worked together. She produced financials for a nonprofit and I chaired the board for a few years and, honestly, I'm not sure what value she'd provide. Sorry."
You see, giving a reference is a very big responsibility, not a cursory one. Every time I give a reference, I use examples that I can pull from my memory to answer the questions. My credibility is on the line every time I agree to serve as a reference for someone. If you ask me to be a reference for you and if I consider serving as a reference, I will ask you why you're asking me, what value do you think I'll add to your application process, and what job are you applying for. And then I'll tell you what I intend to say so you have an opportunity to reevaluate your request.
I'm truthful. I won't simply make you look good so you get the job. I won't try to convince the employer on the other end of the phone that you're perfect for the job. I won't provide an assessment of your work product unless I absolutely can do that without reservation by giving examples of work that you produced for me. I believe very firmly in the reference checking process. I'm committed to hiring the right fit and I truly believe that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.
To the candidates reading this; think carefully about the 'who" when you request a reference of a current or former colleague. Ask what will be said on your behalf and let the answers be your guide. A vague reference reflects almost as poorly as a negative one.