Your Ultimate Guide to Picking and Getting the Best Possible References
You know you’re nearing the final stretch of an interview process (and that it’s looking good for you) when a potential employer asks these three questions:
- When would you be available to start? (Or, how much notice do you need to give your current employer?)
- Can we get you set up for your physical and drug screen?
- Will you please provide us with a list of professional references we may contact?
Question number three can rattle even the strongest of candidates if you’re not prepared to respond swiftly with names, titles, the nature of the relationship, and current contact information for however many people with whom they’d like to speak.
Don’t get caught in scramble mode at this stage of the game. Your prompt response and the quality of your references can take you the distance if you play this right.
Who Should I List (or Not List) as a Reference?
Generally speaking, your future employer wants to talk with the following people, in order of importance (depending on your role):
- Your current manager or supervisor
- Your prior managers or supervisors
- Your current peers or clients (if you’re interviewing for a client-facing role)
- Your prior peers or clients
- Your personal references or friends who will vouch for you
Number five, by the way, is a remote fifth place. Reserve this one for only those times you have few other options, and make sure to ask if it’s OK to include personal references before you do so. Also, if you’re a graduating college student (or recent grad), you can absolutely include professors who may be able to speak to your performance and work ethic.
Never (ever) include relatives, unless you happen to work directly for or with one. Oh, and absolutely don’t ever give a fake name and then commission your buddy to “pretend” to be your employer or peer. Recruiters are not stupid. Treat them so at your own peril.
Keep in mind that the primary reason why potential employers want to check your references is because they want a third party to vouch for your on-the-job performance and character. You can tout your greatness all day long in the interview, but it truly gels for decision makers when others tout it for you.
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Should They Be on My Resume?
Nooooooo. Heavens, no. Not only do you not need to list out your references, you shouldn’t. It takes up unnecessary resume space, and there’s a remote chance that a recruiter may be more interested in, say, your manager (who you’ve listed) than he or she is in you. No need to hand over all of this information before you captivate him or her.
Likewise, no need to write out “References available upon request.” This is a given. When the hiring manager want them, he or she will ask for them. 100% of the time.
What If I’m a Covert Job Seeker?
This can be a tricky one. If you’re currently employed—and job searching on the sly—who can you trust in these final, important legs of a job transition? I can’t answer this one definitively because every situation is different, and the stakes can be quite high. Trust your gut.
Chances are, you aren’t going to be able to use your current manager as a reference. Certainly, consider enlisting former managers. But you should also think about asking one to two colleagues with whom you have a close personal bond (and established level of trust). If and when you ask them for this support, spell it out very clearly how important it is for you to keep your search under wraps—and the potential consequences for you if they blab.
Also, if you’re providing your potential employer with a relatively weak list of references, be sure and alert them that you’re aware of that, and explain why.
How Should I Ask?
I always encourage clients to approach potential references with specificity, instead of the old, “Hey, would you be willing to be my reference?” Do that, and you’re going to have to let the chips fall where they may in terms of what this person offers up. And along those lines, do this over the phone if possible. You’ll get a much better idea of how excited (or unexcited) this person is to help you.
Make sure to frame your request in a way that spells out the details of the role you’re pursuing, what you anticipate the caller is likely going to want to talk about, and how he or she can be the most helpful.
Example: “Because they’re going through so much change and restructuring right now, I’m guessing they’re going to want to make sure I have strong leadership skills and the ability to turn around struggling teams and programs. If you’re willing, I’d love for you to share some detail on the program we revitalized in 2014.”
Be specific, and also ask this direct question at the end of the call, “May I count on you to give me a favorable reference should the company contact you?”
Don’t assume your past co-worker or boss is going to sing your praises. You never know—she may be jealous of your opportunity here or feel like you dropped the ball on something last year. If you ask this question, you’ll either get a “Yes, of course you can count on me” or an awkward pause or waffle. Don’t list anyone who responds with the awkward pause or waffle. Lukewarm references can sink you in the home stretch.
Is There Anything I Should Provide My References With?
Ideally, provide them with a copy of the job description or an overview of the role and main responsibilities. If you can, also give them some background on the person you anticipate will be calling them, so that they can feel up-to-date and prepared for the conversation.
Also, if it’s someone you’ve used as a reference before (and you suspect would be fine being listed again), provide him or her with a heads-up. Don’t list people without giving them any indication that you’ve used them as a reference for this next opportunity. That’s rude, and it may annoy them to the point of not giving you a glowing review.
What Do I Do After They Are Contacted?
Honestly, you don’t always know when a reference has been contacted, but often times your people will follow up to let you know the conversation just took place.
What do you do? This one is easy—thank him or her, and offer to return the favor if it’s ever needed. And, when you land that job? Most definitely let each of your references know, and consider a small thank you gift, like a coffee gift card or lunch.
Get it right, take it the distance, and enjoy that amazing new gig in 2016.
Jenny Foss is a career strategist, recruiter, and the voice of the popular career blog JobJenny.com. Based in Portland, OR, Jenny is the author of the Ridiculously Awesome Resume Kit and the Ridiculously Awesome Career Pivot Kit. Also check out the recently-launched Weekend Resume Makeover Course, find Jenny on Twitter @JobJenny, and book one-on-one coaching sessions with her on The Muse's Coach Connect.More from this Author