Contractors' Questions: Are HR or line managers best for references?

Contractor’s Question: I am currently looking for work as an IT project manager. In recent times, I worked in a permanent role for a company for two years and then contracted at two separate companies for less than six months each.

Regarding references, whom should I put down? Would it be best to cite the HR department for the companies I have worked for, or the hiring managers themselves? Perhaps the latter would be best, because I’m unsure whether HR would actually know in detail about the work that I did. This is because that, like other contractors used by the firm, I was taken on by the IT department and was paid via an IT recruitment agency which billed the company.

Expert’s Answer: Your questions are ones we come across quite often, and are very pertinent. This is particularly the case, given that your experience to date covers both permanent and contract IT placements.

Perhaps the first thing to mention is that, in my experience and through no fault of your own, some employers may look at the combination of perm and contract roles on your CV and draw incorrect conclusions. Some may assume that you favoured the contract route because you were either made redundant or, worse still, lost your job and consequently took several contracts to tide you over until you found a suitable permanent position. Of course, nine times out of ten this is not the case. However, contract hirers - in a bid to ensure they not only get the right skill set but also that their candidate won’t leave a project mid-way through - will certainly question this and may favour another applicant over you.

Consequently, it is even more important to get the correct references from the correct people, and, ideally, you should use the expertise of a niche recruitment consultancy to guide you through the process. We always recommend contractors get references from their line managers (IT in this case), as these personnel will be able to assess the work you delivered effectively. Most IT managers will do this, however it is not uncommon for some companies to prohibit this practice.

If your line manger does agree to write a reference for you, take advantage of this. But make sure you spend some time thinking about what you want them to include in your reference before you approach them to write it. The line manager’s statement should certainly include: the duration of your contract; whether they extended your assignment; what you delivered versus your initial brief; the quality of your work;  how you got on with colleagues and clients, and lastly if they would be likely to re-hire you.

If you find that your employer will only release references from HR – which is more common than you may think – these tend to be very general and just cite the dates you worked there. This is not the ideal situation to be in because, as you point out, HR departments won’t know the details about the work you did and, in extreme case, they may not even know when and for how long you contracted at the organisation. If you are in this position, having lengthier contracts on your CV, or better still, contract extensions will go some way in showing that you did a good job.  

Another useful tip is to build up your professional third-party endorsements which can also serve as references. With clients increasingly turning to the likes of LinkedIn to source more information about potential hires, filling your profile with recommendations from previous line managers will put you in good stead too.

The expert was Michael Bennett, director of IT staffing agency ReThink Recruitment.

Editor’s Note: Further Reading –

Agency tricks on IT contractors ‘still common’

Contractors’ Questions: What checks should I expect?

Friday 15th November 2013