The Secret Sauce of Professional References 

The Secret Sauce of Professional References 

When you’re a nurse in the process of finding a new position, there’s much to think about during the complex job search journey, from your resume and cover letter to interview prep and negotiating salaries, but one thing many nurses overlook is always having a reliable set of professional references on tap whom you can call when you need them.

There’s also the question of approaching your current supervisor for a reference when required. It’s all too common to be unprepared for this situation, which can cause considerable stress.

In the interest of your nursing career, maintaining relationships with the future in mind is a smart strategy to consider.

Planning for the Future

Being a nurse usually means that your life is full, aside from working hard. You may have pets, elderly parents, a partner or spouse, and children, which means you’re also a caregiver at home. Maybe you’ve gone back to school. You may be involved in a faith community or a volunteer organization that provides fulfillment and social connection. And you can’t ignore your health and well-being.

Despite it all, maintaining relationships with other professionals may be the last thing on your mind. However, when push comes to shove, and you’re looking for a new job, you’ll need references, and panicking about it at three in the morning is no picnic.

Maintaining professional relationships is very important, but many don’t bother. This doesn’t mean that colleagues need to be your BFFs (and lucky for you if you’ve found a few), but we all know these friendships can often fade once you’ve moved on. The reality is that it’s in your best interest to maintain at least some contact with key individuals from your professional life, which takes forethought, effort, and initiative.

Like-Mindedness and Connection 

Some people stand out during your career for their friendliness, kindness, and collaborative spirit, and like-minded colleagues, whether nurses, chaplains, physicians, social workers, or executives, are worth their weight in gold.

You may wonder if keeping in touch with key colleagues is somehow manipulative and that you’re simply using them. If you couple your efforts with a sincere interest in, and admiration for, the other person, you’ll be in your integrity. On the other hand, if you’re only thinking about how this person can help you, then it might not feel so authentic. Remember that these relationships can be a two-way street, and you may also be able to help them someday.

Like-mindedness, straightforward communication, and a friendly, professional rapport are key characteristics of these relationships. As you read this, you might already be picturing colleagues past and present who fit the bill. Some are just the kind of people it would be wise to keep in touch with over time.

How to Keep in Touch

There are many ways to stay in contact with colleagues, with the most essential ingredients being desire and effort. It does take a little work, but it’s worth it.

Try the following:

  • Periodically, keep in touch via email. Remember that people come and go from workplaces, so exchanging personal email addresses and phone numbers is smart.
  • Connect on LinkedIn, the most robust professional networking platform currently in existence. Savvy professionals have a complete LinkedIn profile and connect with colleagues there. Many people use the “recommendations” section to give and receive testimonials for one another.
  • If you’re on close enough terms, ask your colleague for their home address and send a birthday and holiday card every year.
  • Invite a colleague for coffee or breakfast occasionally if you live close enough; otherwise, try a Zoom or FaceTime call.
  • Find other creative ways to keep in touch.

Using Your Current Supervisor as a Reference?

Many people keep their job search a secret from their current workplace and coworkers. However, when the time comes that another employer is seriously interested in hiring you, they’ll ask for references, including a recent supervisor. At this point, you must bite the bullet and let your boss know that someone will contact them for a reference. There’s nothing else you can do, so you must be honest.

Your honesty is up to you if your boss asks why you’re looking for another job. You don’t necessarily have to spill your guts if you’re very unhappy. You always have the choice to say something bland but true enough, like, “I’m looking to expand my career and gain more experience with ___________, and this is a great opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up.”

You can also throw in some praise and gratitude for your current job and explain how it has helped you grow. Find the little and big things that were positive and list them for your boss. A little gratitude goes a long way and can soften the surprise of potentially losing you.

When it’s Time to Go

Moving on to a new job is about growth, and people should understand your motives for leaving. Some colleagues may resent you for moving on, but that’s not your problem — they’re probably just envious. Put a stake in the ground regarding your commitment to your career, and understand that leaving for elsewhere is a natural thing. As the singer Michelle Shocked once sang, “The secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go.”

Always be on the lookout for allies and mentors, proactively cultivate positive relationships, maintain contact, and don’t be shy about asking for help when needed. You deserve it, and so does your nursing career.

If you’re looking for a new nursing position, check out the Daily Nurse Career Resource Center to find a new job, get career advice, get certified and search scholarships.

The Nurse Recruiter and You

The Nurse Recruiter and You

When Brittany Castaneda-Thibault, BSN, RN, first started her job search she made sure that the first thing she mentioned in her resume and cover letter was her externship at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She wanted recruiters and hiring managers alike to recognize that she had experience, albeit for one summer, in surgical nursing.

Castaneda-Thibault’s strategy worked. Before she even graduated from her University of Texas-Austin nursing program, she had snared a job as a cardiac surgical nurse at Baylor Scott & White Health in Round Rock, Texas.

“Yes, grades are important, especially if you want to go back to school,” says Castaneda-Thibault. “But you need to show everyone who’s reading your resume that you’re familiar with patient-centered care because you’ve worked in it. You have experience.” [et_bloom_inline optin_id=optin_18]

Indeed, in terms of getting noticed by a recruiter, what you do outside the classroom may be just as important as what you achieve inside. Granted, you’ll have to demonstrate that you know your academic and clinical stuff to be considered a quality candidate and potentially valued member of the nursing staff. But hiring professionals have their eagle eyes focused on a mix of factors. They want to see a well-rounded individual who’s not only prepared, but also professional and passionate.

As Ellen Lorenz, nursing talent acquisitions specialist for the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System, says: “It’s not that they just went to school. It’s that they did other things as well. They made the most of their time as students.”

Be Prepared

Your recruiter will be measuring you against other applicants, so it’s important to be savvy in how you present yourself. You want to pull together all of the resources that could propel you into the job of your dreams—or at least one that’s a satisfying start to a nursing career. That means not only highlighting your achievements, but also demonstrating your knowledge of the institution’s strengths. Since every interview is a two-way conversation, the recruiter likely will expect you to have your fair share of questions. (Now is the time to bone up on the organization’s website.)

Castaneda-Thibault, for example, not only took advantage of her program’s leadership class to master everything she could about the job hunting process, but she also tapped the websites of each organization that granted an interview to learn more about the mission, surgical specialties, and even nursing models. “All of the questions that I couldn’t find answers for I wrote down and asked during the interview,” she says. “It was helpful in helping me look very interested in the hospital and what they did.”

When the spotlight shifts to you, your goal is to make everything you’ve done relevant to the job. Hopefully, your resume is a well-organized mix of academic achievements and other activities. How important is your GPA? It’s as relevant to your job search as a potential employer makes it. If your record puts you at the top of the class, highlight it. In fact, some organizations will be delighted to court you because they want the highest achievers.

Yet more often than not, recruiters are targeting the bigger educational picture in evaluating scholastic success. They’re interested in the content of your classes, the focus of your clinicals, and even the experience you gained from a practicum, externship, or volunteer or part-time job.

At Washington, DC-based Children’s National Health System, for instance, the emphasis is always on a broader evaluation than just one’s GPA. “We’re looking at the whole person, and your academic record is certainly not the whole person,” says Jill Board, MS, BSN, RN, a nurse recruiter, noting that whatever applicants did through their high school or college years involving children—teaching dance, babysitting a family, or even volunteering for a youth group—are profile-raising. “It jumps out at us if we see that you weren’t building a resume just to build a resume, but you really enjoy working with children. That’s important.”

Likewise, although Castaneda-Thibault’s GPA hovered at 3.5-3.6 during nursing school, she didn’t think it was her strongest suit. So she highlighted the points—her leadership roles, volunteer activities, and part-time work in addition to the externship—that demonstrated she was both well-rounded and prepared. She also kept her eye on the ball by applying only for those specialties—surgery, pediatrics, or critical care—that she really wanted. Admittedly, by targeting areas that are normally difficult for first-year grads, Castaneda-Thibault had fewer calls than her colleagues. Yet by parlaying her experience, particularly her Mayo Clinic training, she made a positive enough impression on managers to achieve her ultimate goal.

Be Professional

When it comes to putting your best foot forward, remember that etiquette counts. No matter how high your GPA is, it won’t matter if you don’t combine your academic achievements with common and business sense. “I can’t say enough about how you only have a few minutes to make a good impression,” says Lorenz. “It’s very important that you look put together—that you present a professional package.”

But it’s more than just dressing the part, even though what you wear signals that you’re either a serious candidate or not up to the task. (Bring out the suit!) Recruiters are attuned to factors you might overlook. The tone of your e-mail, the sound of your voicemail, and the way you behave during an interview, for instance, all resonate.

It’s fine to be a “happy warrior” or “hot babe” to your e-mail friends, but during your job search, you need to have a grown-up e-mail address. Likewise, your voicemail’s snappy intro—“Yo, the phone is here but I’m not. Leave your info.”—may fit you to a T personally, but when recruiters call, they want to hear: “You have reached Jo(e). I’m sorry I’m not here to take your call, but please leave a number and I will get back to you as soon as I return.”

As to interviews, at the top of the red flag and pet peeve list for many hiring pros are candidates who arrive late and don’t apologize for their tardiness. So whether you’re scheduled to talk on the phone or meet in person, be on time and on guard. It’s not only important to deftly navigate the formal interview, but don’t drop your defenses if you’re asked to shadow on the unit since you’re being evaluated there too!

For instance, as the market leader for Milwaukee, WI-based Medical Staffing Network & Allied Health Group, Susie Clementi has one goal in mind: Establishing a rapport with her nursing applicants so she knows more about them than their five-year plans. The downside, however, is that sometimes candidates get too comfortable. “They drop the professional façade to reveal who they actually are,” Clementi says. “That might not have been enough to lose the job, but it could be enough to lose the opportunity to interview further for it.”

Be Passionate

No matter how polished and impressive your resume, you’ll need to show recruiters more than academic qualifications for the job. From your cover letter to your interview, you want to demonstrate that you’re truly engaged in the specialty, are excited about the position, and have decided that this is the place you want to be. That’s not to say that you’re not open to possibilities. Even recruiters understand that you may have liked so many aspects of nursing school that you’re unsure about your career path, but don’t appear so anxious that you’re seemingly throwing darts at a board.

“If you come across like you’re willing to take anything because you just want a job, you’re not the kind of candidate we’re really looking for,” explains Lorenz. “We want people who are excited and passionate in what they’ll be doing. It’s not about taking any job. It’s about taking the right job . . .and having the right candidate for the job.”

Board agrees, noting that a cover letter is the first opportunity to cement your commitment in the mind of a recruiter. You do it by producing a letter that’s not just generic in its appeal but refers specifically to the job at hand and qualifications or interests you have for it. “I often tell people I’m only half joking when I say, ‘If you can make me cry, you probably will get an interview,’” she says. “Nursing is hard work and we want to see if someone is committed and feels that this is really what they’re meant to do.”

Case in point: Board recalls giving one aspiring applicant a second look after the woman called and asked what she could have done differently to land an interview. When Board suggested that she needed to offer more than just “the dry basics” in her resume and cover letter to gain a foothold, the caller mentioned how her experience as the mother of a sick child had inspired her.

Granted, that kind of information may not be appropriate for every position—you have to be measured in how you use any personal narrative. Yet as a former manager who had hired parents of children treated at her institution, Board saw the story as ripe for an effective cover letter since it showed her commitment to pediatric care. When the caller resubmitted the application and letter with reference to her story, Board was happy to schedule an interview. She won the job!

Final Thoughts

Searching for a nursing job can definitely create stress. Finding the right position takes time, energy, and emotion. But by knowing what recruiters might have on their agendas, you not only can reduce the levels, but also increase your profile as a standout candidate.