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Originally published on the Harvard Business Review blog on May 23, 2014.
What do you wish you had known about your manager before you started your current job? Work style? Personality? Approach to management? Ability (or inability) to empathize? Most advice around job searching and interviewing has become common knowledge: Research the company, ask questions about the company culture, send a thank you note, and so on. But while this routine might inform you (and get you excited) about any given company, it doesn’t really tell you about the person you’ll be working under.
My advice: Reference-check your future boss.
Think about it: Do you want to work for a tyrant? A know-it-all? A manipulator? Or do you want to work with a great coach? A developer of people? A thought-leader? You may know exactly what you want, but it’s difficult to pick up on these traits in an hour-long interview — especially when you’re the interviewee. All the stars might be aligning for you (promising company with great growth, dream job description, attractive compensation and benefits), but one person (your manager) could affect your career more than everything else combined.
Potential employers certainly aren’t shy when it comes to asking about your background. From cover letters and on-sites to criminal background checks and logic challenges, you’re more or less asked to bare your soul. Why? They want to get to know you — to make sure you’re the right fit. Shouldn’t you be doing the same? And couldn’t you be using some of the same tools?
Hence, reference-checking your future boss. Don’t believe it’s a viable option? Well, we recently had a candidate ask for references – from his potential manager’s colleagues and direct reports – and have seen others do the same in the past.
While we don’t see this strategy all the time (and it’s usually just for senior level roles), it raises the question: Why don’t more people take this approach? It not only shows how seriously the candidate is considering the decision, but it also establishes a more transparent, bi-directional conversation between both sides.
We’d be remiss if we suggested this as a one-size-fits-all tactic. Our candidate — who is now an employee — was able to successfully reference-check his manager both because of the relation to the position he was applying to and the fact that Medallia is simply more open to unconventional hiring approaches. But plenty of proxies exist for a reference check. You can ask other interviewers what it’s like to work with that person. You can use LinkedIn to find your potential boss’s former direct reports or business partners and reach out for their thoughts. Social media can help you identify shared connections and point you to who can give you insights. Through both digital and analogue means, you can also find out if he or she is in any clubs, associations, or alumni groups where you have contacts and can seek information.
Your job hunt should never be thought of as anything but a two-way decision. You will be investing your time, skills, and passion into a company and spending untold hours and energy working with a future boss. Make sure you’re making a good investment by asking the right questions and doing the right research. If that means asking for references, go for it. Otherwise, you might find yourself looking for a new job… to escape your new job.