Aug 122011

Chefs Career Tools: References

Available on Demand – The standard redundant ending of any resume. Why write it?  Every employer knows that he can have the references if he wants them. You won’t be hired without them.

A future employer will probably contact several references including a formal HR phone call to confirm your employment, people he may know personally and references you provide.

Who should you choose as references?

Your references should be people  you have worked with or for. Supervisors, employers and colleagues from the both sides of the house are your best choices. If you are a chef, your references might be the catering manager, the GM and perhaps the sous chef.  If you are a manager you might give the owner, the HR Director or accountant.

People who you know but have not worked with are not references. Even Al Capone  had friends, who would have sworn up and down he was as honest as the day is long and wouldn’t hurt a flea. Your priest, your banker or your old Boy Scout troop leader are not good choices.

Your previous working relationship with your references should be ongoing and daily. If you worked for someone or with someone at an event, they are not suitable.

Is this legal to require references?

Absolutely. People lie a lot on resumes, and it is not only a future employer’s right but his duty to his staff to confirm your claims and screen your suitability for his particular operation.

When will they call references:

Employers  usually call for references when they have a feeling that they are interested in you.  This will generally happen after your first phone contact or after one or two interviews.  Some may take these steps before calling you to see if the time for an interview is worth their while.

What about confidentiality?

If you have concerns about discretion – if your current employer could find out about your job search from someone else on the list, you should state that clearly in  your cover letter and on your resume. (To maintain confidentiality please do not contact references before speaking with me.) Employers rarely step over the line in questions of confidentiality, but a polite reminder is wise.

What kind of  information do employers look for?

While nobody expects any candidate to be perfect in all categories, employers generally realize that your performance in previous positions probably determines how you will work in the next.

As a matter of fact, hearing from a reference that an employee is not as strong in one area as in others makes a reference more credible.

1)      Confirmation of your statements: What you have told them about your employment is accurate and not invented. Dates, titles, duties.

2)     Your Rehire Status. This is occasionally useless, but it is a way to get a read from  an otherwise tight lipped corporate environment.  Actions such as not giving notice, repeated incidents of inappropriate behavior or unreliability will result in a negative rehire status, which can but doesn’t have to limit your future employment options.

2)      Are you competent or skilled or talented  – usually for a specific set of tasks or environment? (Volume, cake decorating, five star cuisine, costing, you name it.)

3)      You  play well with others. They seek information on  your relationships with your supervisors and subordinates. They hear this in the voice of the person who answers the phone and in random comments“We were really sorry to lose her.” “I wish we had a place for him.”

4)      Is  your attitude  toward your work and the people around you positive?

5)      You are clean, organized, punctual and reliable (work habits)

6)      You fit the profile of their property.

7)      You are honest and do not bring any issues with you which damage them, their staff or their business. (No drugs in the walk in, didn’t steal bunches of parsley or silverware, doesn’t grope passing servers).

References are not a report card. They provide some basic assurances about your professional persona.

Where and how should you state your references:

I think the most elegant way of handling references is a lost at the end of the resume or on a separate sheet, if you want to speak to the hiring agent before exposing the people you worked with to their questions. An extra sheet can be taken to an interview.

The entry should give the person’s name, telephone number, possibly an additional private number, the references current position plus his or her relationship with you when and where your worked together.

As an alternative you can name one or two references following each job descriptions on  your resume.


Large businesses and corporations discourage (and forbid) sharing information about past employees because they fear their deep pockets are tempting for potential litigants and they will face a case which will have to be settled or make them pay for attorneys for years. Reckless defamation suits rarely end up in front of a judge and are rarely won.

Some business will not give references. A few, the Cheesecake Factory for instance, require a future employer to pay a confirmation service for date and title confirmation with no statement of hiring status.  That seems to me plenty of reason not to work for those firms – you worked for them and the least they could do is acknowledge you – but if you are in that position, you need to arrange with colleagues to speak on your behalf. Managers and coworkers who have moved on to other positions are your best bet. This is, by the way, a very good reason to keep in contact with the people you have worked with.

Some jobs end on a sour note. That happens. If this is the case, you can communicate the issues civilly to the person who interviews you – don’t wait for them to ask – and explain that there are other references available.  You would also be surprised at how professional employers generally are when discussing past employees.

Line up your references:

As a courtesy to your references, give them a heads up and ask their permission. If they say no, then find someone else. If you can’t locate them, try Facebook or Linkedin. (It is always amusing to hear someone say, “He chose me as a reference??!!|)

The Un-Reference

Also known as the back door reference.  Supplying  your references to a potential employer  shows you to be confident in your past performance and willing to be looked at closely, but it doesn’t guarantee that the employer won’t talk to other people. Don’t count on stacking the reference deck.

Unless you are restaurant cannon fodder –   staff with little responsibility and easily replaceable – the employer will probably try to find out more.  The Food and Beverage industry is tight and incestuous. The probability that the server you once fired or the dishwasher you were kind to works for the new opportunity is fairly high. If they do, they will probably be asked about you.(Another reason to be nice to people).

Everyone knowing everyone in the chef and restaurant world, furthermore, the new employer probably has connections to any number of people who worked with you here or there, and they will call them and just drop your name, then listen for the joyous, “Oh, JOHN!! How is he?  He’s a great guy!” or “Ooof. John, eh. Did he lose another job?”   Again, be nice to people.

“But slander is illegal!??”

If it is true, it is not slander, and slander is not illegal. It is actionable (a civil matter rather than a criminal issue).  The First Amendment still counts, and you can’t sue someone for revealing documented facts about a past employee.  People don’t go to prison for revealing what is written in your file, as long as it is not private information, but they can if they state unfounded opinions or if they practice reckless defamation.  It just isn’t easy. A valid claim of reckless defamation requires three things.

1)      The person telling the lie did so knowingly.

2)      That person receives some form of benefit from telling it. This may be a promotion, it may be money. It could possibly be the satisfaction of revenge. (It’s called “reckless” for a reason.)  Ex employers are more liable for damages, if they tell a potential employer that you are a terrific hire in order to get you off their unemployment rolls.  Many years ago a company which spoke highly of an employee who later injured (or killed?) a winery worker had to pay the damaged parties half a million dollars.

3)      It causes you substantial damage – you lose your job, you cannot get a job. You are offered less salary. Your reputation is ruined.

What employers cannot say is “I think he did drugs” or “I wouldn’t trust him,” opinions in other words. Anything that is documented, however, for instance an assault on another employee or a failure to appear to work is fact and can be shared. “We had to replace him while he was in prison for murder,” is perfectly legal. It’s a matter of public record. An employer can also say we were not satisfied with his speed or the level of  his food knowledge.

Your personnel file may also contain medical or personal information, which a previous employer is not free to share with anyone. He cannot discuss anything about health issues or your family issues impeding your performance.  If you don’t know what is in your personnel file, you have a right to see it, and you should have a look.

Usually, however, employers bend over to say nicer things about employees than they deserve. Truly negative statements are generally expressed in silence. A recent candidate we reviewed, for instance, had an impressive resume, but the most we could gather from employers was “Well, he worked here.”

Nobody is perfect.

Do not expect all  of the references your employer receives to be glowing. The employer doesn’t. Continual 5 star references are suspicious. What we all know if that people grow up, they make mistakes, chemistry happens and unhappens and someone who will be a great fit for one position may not have been for another.  Jesus Christ, when he returns to this earth, is not, trust me, going to look for a job in a kitchen.

What are some reference red lights: (Avoid them)

Sometimes I will discard a candidate after looking at the references and finding some of the following.

1)      No references for recent positions.

2)      No  phone numbers. Only email addresses such as I would expect

3)      References all outside of the current and last positons: Purveyors, friends, etc.

4)      References who contact me. (this is just plain spooky.)

5)      Family. (I have on a couple of occasions found that the person giving the reference was a sibling or an in-law. We drop the candidate.)

6)      Prestigious names at restaurants where the candidate has not worked.

7)      Suggestions that a candidate was “Mentored” by a reference for  whom he did not work.

8)      A large number of written references but no contacts. Nobody does this any more in the United States. It is still, however, common in Europe. Paper can be easily forged. (We have seen some phony telephone references, too).  Written references can also include deceptively negative statements: “He did everything to the best of his ability,” etc.

A job search is not a popularity contest or a reality show. It is a process to find a place whose interests and opportunities coincide as well as possible with your own abilities and desires. The referencing process is part of this process. In the ideal situation you want the people who provide information about your to be frank and as objective as possible. It is disconcerting to know that someone is talking about you, but really, the truth is that most of them say things nicer than you would ever expect. (“SHE said that about me???? )

Your comments and experiences are appreciated. Please feel free to contribute.