When you’re looking for a job, reaching the point in the process when the employer asks for references is often good news. Few recruiters or hiring managers will go to the time and effort to seek outside opinions if you aren’t among the top candidates.
The reference-checking phase of the hiring process is also a dangerous one, though. Employers often heavily weight the opinions of others in their decisions, and if you connect them with the wrong people, you could spur more questions than answers. The reference gathering process is so fraught with legal pitfalls that many corporate HR departments refuse to provide in-depth references as a matter of policy, instead offering only confirmation of dates of hire and salary.
Still, you’ll most likely need to provide references that speak to your character and skills, so it’s in your best interest to put some thought into that process.
Who Should You Approach?
When hiring managers call references provided by an applicant, they expect to hear positive reviews; after all, why would someone put them in touch with boss from a job they left on bad terms? That’s why it’s so surprising to hear negative reviews or lukewarm praise — yet it happens more often than one might think.
Before you provide references, consider who would speak highly of you, but who will also be able to speak to your suitability for the requirements of the position. That may not be a former supervisor, especially if you had limited contact. A former co-worker, a supervisor from another department that you worked closely with, or even a vendor or client might be a better choice, as her or she can provide more in-depth analysis of what it’s like to work with you and your abilities.
It’s important to choose references that are relevant to your chosen path as well. While a former supervisor might be able to speak to your work ethic, he or she may not be able to provide much insight into your potential for success as a student. For example, if you’re applying to a graduate program in social work, former instructors, or colleagues who have experience with you in a related environment might be a better choice, as they have relevant interactions to draw upon.
Preparing for Launch
The best way to ensure great references is to tell people what to say. Okay, not really, but prepping your references in advance helps them provide more detailed and impressive information. Have a conversation or send a detailed email outlining the position or program you’re applying for, why you’re the best fit, and providing a detailed list of points that they can consider when singing your praises. If it’s been a while since you worked together, a gentle reminder of how you contributed to that amazing presentation or the project you spearheaded can be helpful.
It’s also helpful if you can provide an overview of what the hiring manager or admissions committee is looking for in a candidate. Some experts recommend asking an interviewer about their top priorities for a new employee, or the strengths of the person who last held the job. You can use that information to prep a reference to speak to your qualities and how you can meet or exceed those expectations.
It’s also a good idea to provide references with an idea of who else the manager can contact to learn more about you. Many employers are now asking for references in addition to those provided by the applicant to get a more rounded view, so remind your references of others you have in common to prevent any unpleasant surprises.
Mind Your P’s and Q’s
Beyond everything else, the most important part of getting good references is to mind your manners. Never list someone as a reference without first seeking permission. Some people don’t like having their contact information handed out without authorization, not to mention that no one likes being caught off guard when they receive a call about a former co-worker or employee. Of course, if you follow the advice above, all of your references will be well prepared to receive a call about you and will provide glowing praise.
Regardless of whether you receive a job offer or not, send a thank you note to your references to acknowledge their time. Appreciation goes a long way toward building strong relationships and keeping your network intact — and if you ever need another reference, that same person will be more likely to provide one again.
Of course, the key to great references is building strong working relationships and not burning bridges. If you keep your relationships strong, you shouldn’t have any trouble when it comes time to put employers in touch with those who can speak to your talents.