checkmarks Professional references are often an overlooked part of the job search process.  This is unfortunate, because prospective employers place a lot of weight on what your references say.  It is important that you spend as much effort selecting and developing your references as you do preparing your application packet.

  • What do employers look for from a reference?
  • Who might be a good reference? 
  • How do you approach potential references?
  • Do you contact your references for every job you apply for?
  • Should you ask your family, friends or work colleagues to be a reference?

These are common questions that job seekers ask about references.  Take a moment to review best practices for securing a great job reference and see how putting in a little extra time on this part of the job search could pay off exponentially.

 “Prospective employers really take into consideration what job references say about a candidate,” says Jeff Shane, executive vice president of Allison & Taylor, a reference and background checking firm. “You’re only going to say good things about yourself, and personal references are only going to offer positive remarks, but professional references are more detached and will be more candid, loose-lipped, and revealing.”

According to a CareerBuilder survey:

“Three in five employers (62 percent) said that when they contacted a reference listed on an application, the reference didn’t have good things to say about the candidate.”

“Sixty-nine percent of employers said they have changed their minds about a candidate after speaking with a reference, with 47 percent reporting they had a less favorable opinion and only 23 percent reporting that they had a more favorable opinion.”

You should start thinking about who would be a good professional reference right now!  Your references should not be an afterthought that you pull out of your phone contact list when you get to the end of an application. Don’t jeopardize a career opportunity by not having people ready to speak on your behalf.

Also, don’t assume that reference checks will be one of the last things a prospective employer does before they offer a position.  Some employers actually use reference checks to weed out candidates before they utilize valuable time in the interview process.

red check markWho are good references?

The best references are individuals who can speak about your strengths and how you add value to an organization.

You should have a list of former college instructors, direct supervisors or colleagues, board members or clients who can speak to your strengths, accomplishments, management style, work style, effectiveness, and character. 

Most employers ask for no more than four references.  Pam Venne, principal of The Venne Group, a Dallas career-management firm, advises job seekers to create a references pool. “When you’re asked for references, you can strategically choose the best individuals to people what you want highlighted for the opportunity,” she says. Choose the right person who can speak about both your soft skills, such as your ability to work in teams, communication and organizational skills and also how your experience lines up with what they are looking for.

Also, make sure your reference has a good reputation and will be considered a reputable reference by the potential employer.

red check markHow to Get Strong Recommendations?

This is an extremely important step.  People don’t want to be blindsided, especially when approached for a reference about someone they worked with in the past. 

Before you include their information, reaching out to potential references with a phone call, e-mail, meet with or send a note to get permission to use their name as a reference.  Check the person’s availability, in case they will be out of town and unavailable for an extended period of time.

Secondly, this is a great time to catch them up with what is happening in your professional life. Provide a copy of your current resume, your cover letter and also a copy of the job description.  Make sure your references can speak to your most recent roles and responsibilities.

Take this time to give them information about your current role, responsibilities and achievements. Don’t forget to tell them about any continuing education and community service they may not know you are involved in. This background information can help your references as they think about how they can best formulate answers to questions the potential employer may ask.

Finally, make sure you provide the name and title of the person who will be reaching out to your reference. This only adds to the potential for a positive impression, when your reference is able to say, “I’ve been expecting your call.”

red check markKeep Your References Up To Date.

If you can, think about your references as a professional mentor who are invested in your success. Keep them informed of your educational and career progress.  If they are invested in you, they are more inclined to talk about your progress in a positive light.

Keep them up to date about each and every position you apply for and give out their contact information.

Make sure you have your references preferred contact information (phone and e-mail) as well as their current title, department and company name. Let them know when they might be contacted, especially if it is imminent, so they are prepared for your potential employer’s call or email.

red check markHave A Good Idea of What Your Reference Will Say.

Unless you have been in contact with and discussed the position, you really don’t know what your reference will say.  Make sure you talk to your reference and you have a good idea of what they will share about you. It is appropriate to ask the prospective reference if they feel comfortable providing input about your qualifications for this position. You need to know that they will give you a favorable recommendation.

Most importantly, share with them why you think they would be a good reference for the job you are applying for.

“One of the top required skillsets listed on the job description is strong organizational skills.  I think you would be a good reference because I organized the filing system in your office and you still use it.  This might be one great example.”

Anita Attridge, a New York career coach, suggests sending your reference an e-mail with a bullet point list of achievements he or she can mention when a hiring manager calls.

red check markBe Grateful

Having people invested in you and your professional development is something you should never take for granted.  Remember that time is a precious, and communicating with you and a prospective employer on your behalf takes time out of their already busy day.  It is important that you recognize this by following up after the interview process is over and let them know the final results and your next steps. 

Remember – “thank you” goes a long way!

Make time to send a thank you note to your references, as well as the organization you interviewed with, or at a minimum an e-mail following up.  If you secure the position, it might be nice to meet for lunch or after-hours and let them know how the transition is going. 

What is important, is that you maintain the relationship and don’t just call on them when you want something from them.Provide them with your contact information, put a new business card in your thank you note or send them a message through Linked-In.  Make sure you follow up and you keep in touch.