On Professional ReferencesJune 29th, 2012
Emailing your boss about using them as a reference is a delicate exercise in sandwiching the question of what their job title actually is within reminiscent and overenthusiastic gratitude. It, like resume writing and job interviews, is more often performance than any attempt at personal connection. That seems unfortunate. But when the core of your request is really “which of your numbers and emails can I hand out willy-nilly to any and every person that offers me a job”, I guess there has to be an understood level of trust and connection there already. Or none at all. Either you’ve done the work of connecting with them and earned the right to ask them this giant favor of making themselves available to every single employer you take a mild interest in, or they’re such an afterthought that you ask them because you figured that they’ll say yes just to get you to stop bugging them. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but I feel like that’s generally the way it breaks down. Emailing that one person that you’ve talked to a few times in a different department, and asking them if you can use them as a professional reference, isn’t a logical course of action if you’re looking to get to know them better. But if that works for you, you’ve clearly got more game than me, and more power to you.
Really, though, looking for professional references is a good way for you to really scrutinize the relationships you’ve developed with your bosses and co-workers. Which ones are your go-to people to make small talk with, and which ones do you ask for advice on the projects that you’re working on? Are they maybe the same people? Which ones do you find yourself seeing every day, but never talking to? Think about why that happens, and what you could be doing to change that. Think about the higher-ups in your company that know who you are, maybe know you by name, but are so thoroughly disinterest and disengaged from the work you’re doing and how you do it, that your only interaction with them is a “Hi, how are you? Great, me too. Have a good one”. If asked, they’d probably say that you’re a friendly and hard-working person, because they haven’t heard otherwise, but they probably don’t have a clue what you do. Again, though, thinking about who you think about using as professional references, and WHY, helps you really focus on what these relationships are based on, if anything.
It varies from workplace to workplace in a big way, but building relationships with co-workers is hard. Building relationships with anybody is hard, but when you have a job to do that’s paying your bills and supporting you and your loved ones, it’s hard to take the risky and insecure steps to establishing deep, genuine connections with people. Especially when you’re aware that those people have the same work-centric priorities, that often make both of you clam up about your actual emotions and thoughts and force you to just fake a smile and stay focused on your work, only using conversations as a tool for furthering the work, to collaborate rather than connect. Really, even collaborating doesn’t happen as often as it probably should, a lot of the time there’s just delegating back and forth that only partially gets heard, followed by arguing. Again, not true of all workplaces, but I feel like it’s safe to say that everyone can think of at least one work environment they’ve been in that functions that way. And really, I feel like that’s treated as the norm, that’s the average workplace that people are CONTENT to be stuck with, and anything that has even a sliver of genuine, casual human interaction is a place that you should feel lucky to be in. That or it’s just assumed that a casual, friendly atmosphere like that is attached to a company that can’t support their employees financially. It’s as if that friendly interaction is a commodity that comes at a large cost that most companies aren’t willing to pay, and the workers but into that line of thinking, for the most part. Now, there is certainly a point where being TOO casual, TOO laid back, TOO focused on co-workers within a company having genuine, personal connections, will stunt a company’s doubt. As with everything, there’s a balance that needs to be achieved. I just feel like the baseline of acceptable co-worker interaction in the workplace could be a little higher.
And here’s the thing. The onus isn’t just on companies to find that balance between productivity and personal connection, it’s on us too. Even within a hectic, stressful, productivity-minded work environment, we can find a few minutes to ask a co-worker how their weeks been going, what they’ve doing to relax, what plans they have for the upcoming weekend. You could even ask them about the work that they’re doing! Maybe you don’t have a clue what projects they’re working on, and you can learn a lot more about them that way, and maybe they’ll be happy to finally share about the thing that they’ve been dumping hours and hours of their life into. Maybe there’ll even be a opportunity for you to meet up with them outside of work, maybe with some of their friends or other mutual co-workers, so that you can all relax together and talk in a free-er context, without the pressures of the workplace constantly stifling you. The point is, even just a short interaction can lead to a genuine connection, a friendship, a relationship, it can break people out of their stagnant, unthinking cycle of high-stress work and re-invigorate them a bit, it can do all sorts of things that wouldn’t have been possible if work was just left as a connection-less, rote repetition of doing what’s expected of you. You don’t have to start by asking someone if they want to grab lunch, even, just say hello to your co-workers, ask them how their week’s been, and really listen! Engage them, even in just a small way at first, and things will grow naturally from there! It’s really not that difficult, and it’s not that much work, but it’s something that we neglect to do more often than not, just because it requires us to turn off a little of our apprehension about awkwardly breaking a silence or greeting someone you don’t know that well. Just get over it! They’re probably feeling somewhat apprehensive too, and they’re probably just as stressed out with work as you are, so someone taking the time to talk and listen to them is going to make a huge difference in how positive and energetic their mindset is as they continue through their day. Most of the time, it will have a big enough impact that it’ll inspire them not only to reciprocate that desire for a connection with you in the future, but they’ll apply it to their other connections as well, inside and outside of work! So go out there and be sociable! It’s easier than you think, and when you see the rewards that it can yield, you won’t be able to stop.