I have always found it somewhat ironic that many employed people give so little thought to cultivating relationships while they are employed, beyond the usual water cooler chit-chat. Then when job searching, they think the only person they should use as a reference was their previous boss.
One day, you too might find yourself seeking a different job either out of necessity or personal development, and you’ll be looking around for people who can attest to the accomplishments you’ve achieved and what it was like to have you around. Why wait until you actually reach that climatic decision and then scramble to find references, possibly after you’ve already cleared out your desk and moved on?
If you are employed at the present time, NOW is the time to start looking at your co-workers, your clients, your Supervisor etc. as people who can help you advance your career by attesting to your acquired skills, your attitude, your personality, the values and beliefs you hold, your stamina etc.
Let’s look at things practically. Suppose you’re one of the lucky few who know exactly what your next career move is going to be, even if that move is years in the future. Okay so have you looked at that job description to identify the desired skills and education required? Have you sat down with someone who occupies that position now and talked about the desired qualities it will take in order to succeed? What traits do people possess who thrive vs. those who just scrape by in the job?
Now what you want to do is nurture those skills where you can in your present job, especially if you find yourself lacking in those desired areas. Sitting down with your current Supervisor and sharing your long-term goal, asking for their support and mentor-ship in putting you in positions to learn and acquire those skills now shows forethought, planning, goal-setting, and determination. The alternative might be to just coast along in your present job and then one day when the job vacancy is posted, learn for the first time what is required and then try to cram or fake your way into the interview. So you can have a steep learning curve or a steadily growing learning curve.
But back to those references. With your co-workers, you should start now to demonstrate your collaboration skills, work with others in a friendly, productive manner and put others in the spotlight when they deserve it. While it’s healthy and good to be a team player for the sake of getting things done and getting along, there’s nothing wrong with also being aware all the time that you are forging a relationship which you may later call upon to speak up and back up your claims of being a great co-worker.
As for your Supervisor, if the job you are eventually going for calls for creativity, leadership, problem-solving skills etc. get your Supervisor on board with your desire to be put into situations now where you can demonstrate and hone those same skills? Is there a project that you could lead, a long-standing challenge for your department or team which you could devote your attention to and come up with practical implementation-ready ideas? Maybe they’d generate more productivity, reduce costs, improve the work atmosphere, or maybe something simple like introduce a recycling program.
Another key to references is to stay connected to them. Suppose someone says they’ll be a reference for you as you get laid-off, but you let six months go by without even so much as a phone call to them or an offer to meet for a coffee. By the time you get around to actually needing them, they may themselves have moved on, changed their phone number, left the company, or the company shut down and you have no contact information. Whose fault is this?
So what do you say to a person who is willing to stand as a reference for you? Well talk with them about your current situation, what you’ve been up to with respect to your job search, some training you’ve taken, whether you’ve switched gears and are looking at a whole new line of work. Hold back on the frustration, the anger, the bitterness and resentment you might be experiencing. Show up looking like you have some personal dignity and pride in your appearance too. References may struggle to say how great you were to work with if the current reality is in conflict with the person they used to know.
References are not only to be ‘used’. Ask about their work, how things are going in their lives, and maybe you can even brainstorm some ideas to solve their problems. So what does that do for you? Well, it shows you aren’t so self-centered that you only care about your own selfish interests. Second of all it gives them a reason to stay connected if they feel you genuinely are interested in them and the relationship you once had continuing.
Of course, by keeping a reference current, you also get thought of much more often when employment opportunities come up in their lives too. That’s when your reference says to their own employer or one of their contacts, “Say, I know somebody who might be just what you’re looking for!”