You’re probably asking for job references from the wrong person

Your coworkers often know a side of you that your manager doesn’t see.
Your coworkers often know a side of you that your manager doesn’t see.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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According to conventional wisdom, it’s best to use your former bosses for job references. If you don’t, it may look like you’re hiding a sour past. But a new study suggests that if you want to give a potential employer the most thorough possible view of your abilities, manager recommendations alone won’t suffice.

In a recent study of 20,000 job references, SkillSurvey, an online reference-checking technology firm, analyzed the language used to describe a random sample of 5,000 candidates’ top three work-related strengths and areas for improvement. The candidates were applying for one of jobs at one of 636 different companies across 34 different industries, including higher education, health care, retail, and technology. Feedback from two managers and two co-workers was analyzed for each candidate.

The analysis revealed statistically significant differences in the ways managers and co-workers described the same candidate. Managers were significantly more likely to use language describing task-oriented or “hard” skills (such as reliability, ability to work independently, and having relevant work experience). Co-workers favored words describing interpersonal, or “soft” skills, such as listening, being helpful, and being compassionate.

This trend held steady regardless of where a candidate was in their career. The 5,000 candidate sample included 1,000 candidates applying to jobs at five experience levels—from no experience required to graduate degree and five years of relevant work experience required. Some of the jobs candidates applied for included retail cashier, customer service rep, registered nurse, software developer, academic faculty, HR director, and physician.

This study reveals a truth that has probably occurred to many workers as they apply for new jobs: Sometimes your manager doesn’t really have a great idea of what it’s like to work with you on a daily basis. While your ability to execute responsibilities is key to qualifying for a job, potential employers also care about your personality, work ethic, and team behavior. Such “soft skills,” which include communication, emotional intelligence, influence, and conflict management, are what hiring managers talk about when they talk about “culture fit.”

“Soft skills is such a terrible misnomer because, in today’s collaborative, project-based work environment, the interpersonal and leadership skills we refer to as ‘soft skills’ can be more important than your technical expertise,” says Liane Davey, an organizational psychology expert and author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done. As automation eliminates repetitive task-reliant jobs, while jobs requiring cognitive and social skills consistently grow, honing and marketing soft skills gives workers an increasingly competitive edge.

Ideally, Davey says, a good job reference will be able to speak to the quality of your work, your accomplishments, and your work habits. “A reference that has seen you make a positive contribution on a project team or in a particularly sticky interpersonal situation is best positioned to provide a reference that highlights the value of your soft skills,” Davey adds.

Since job applicants often hesitate to exclude their boss’s voices, Davey says that hiring managers ought to specifically request references from co-workers as well as managers. “Potential hires that are unable to manage the ambiguity of shared accountability, the frustration of misaligned priorities, and the discomfort of intra- and inter-team conflict can cost an employer in productivity and engagement of those around them,” she says. That means it’s important to get a personal perspective even on candidates with dazzling credentials.

Even if you’re not applying or hiring at the moment, this research reinforces the importance of building strong relationships at work—not just focusing on results. By actively seeking feedback from colleagues, giving constructive praise, and identifying opportunities to help others, you can get better at your joband ensure that you have people who can advocate for your value as a teammate to future employers.