You know how to ask for a reference. And once your former boss agrees, you can send a one-line “thank you,” then sit back and wait to hear from your potential employer—right?
Well, you could—but I’m here to strongly advise against it.
Think about it: You know all of your skills and experiences, but you still take the time before your interview to think through how best to articulate connections between your prior work and the job to which you’re applying. Similarly, a former boss could absolutely talk about you on the fly—but wouldn’t she be able to make a stronger case if she focused on the specific skills that correlate to your desired company and position?
As a job seeker, you want to do everything you can to make the best impression possible. So, what if I told you that one quick email could revolutionize how you communicate with your reference? Read on for the one step you must take to get a stronger recommendation.
Follow Up: Your Tool to Get the Best Recommendation Possible
Barring unique circumstances, a former boss will nearly always agree to serve as a reference. That sounds (and is) great, but it also means that he could be in the middle of composing an email or about to run into a meeting when he says, “Sure!” As such, when your interviewer calls him later in the week, he may not remember exactly what the position is or what specifically you’ve been doing since you moved to a new job three years ago.
The trick to avoiding this is to send a follow-up email with an updated resume, a link to the position description, and a paragraph explaining why you think you’re right for the job (ideally, the same day your contact agrees to serve as a reference). Here’s what it might look like:
Thank you so much for serving as a reference. I am applying for a public relations position at NBC. As you know, I have been working in PR at my current company, including drafting press releases and managing our social media presence, which would be the primary responsibilities in this new role. I know that when we worked together, my role was recruiting, but it was the recruiting emails I penned and public speaking opportunities I had when we worked together than inspired me to work in this field.
One key thing the hiring manager is looking for is someone with the ability to interact with executives, so if you could share some of those experiences from when we worked together, I’d be grateful. I’ve attached a copy of my resume and the position description for your reference. Please let me know if I can answer any questions, or if I can provide anything else that would be helpful.
Don’t worry that this sort of email will be seen as leading or a nuisance. In reality, it shows respect for your recommender’s time that you sent along all of the relevant information (as opposed to expecting her to go searching for your exact dates of employment). It also keeps her from feeling silly (and looking less credible) when she totally butchers the name of your current organization because it slipped her mind and she has nowhere to quickly check.
Moreover, prepping your reference can make a difference in your candidacy. Sure, some employers see checking references as perfunctory, but it’s still the only time during the hiring process that someone other than you can talk up your qualifications. So, why not point your recommender in the direction of emphasizing skills you think reinforce your application? If you’re a great interviewer and public speaker, but you think one is way more relevant to the job, say so. You’re not limiting your contact—he’ll still say what he thought of you as an employee—but you’ve given him the necessary information to give you the best reference possible.
Of course, this super-helpful email isn’t the end of your follow-up. To show you truly appreciate someone’s time, you must keep each reference apprised of your progress. Clearly, he or she should be one of your first emails or calls after you get the job (even if the employer tells you he didn’t check your references). Saying “thank you” ASAP is not only professional, but it helps you come off less like you only reach out when you need something, and more like you’re keeping your contact posted as a valued member of your job search process and success.
You should also touch base with your reference if you’re passed over for the position. You may think it’s irrelevant, especially if he or she won’t be contacted by the hiring manager at all, but that’s a vital piece of information (particularly to the person who’s picked up every call from a random number for the last week on your behalf). Plus, it preps him or her that you might need another reference in the near future.
There is so much that feels out of your control in the application process. But you are in charge of how you communicate with your contacts. Your references signed on to talk about how great you are, so feel confident preparing them to do just that—it just might make the difference in your candidacy.