Getting Maximum Value From Your Professional References

When you’re searching for a new career, it’s imperative to have the right people in your corner. Networking is one of the most vital tenets in career advancement, and one of the most obvious places to see the benefits is when your professional references are contacted. When utilized properly, your references can give you the edge over similarly qualified candidates.

But the inverse is also true, and choosing the wrong references can have a dire effect on your chances of getting the job. If you get to the point a potential employer asks for your references, you’re very close to getting the job. Finish strong by choosing the right references and prepare them accordingly by implementing these pieces of advice.

“The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.” — Keith Ferrazzi

Choosing the right references

You want your references to be people in your corner that will give you glowing recommendations, but not everyone you know is a great option. You want professional references that understand who you are in a working environment, not your neighbors, friends, family members, or drinking buddies.

The Muse’s Jenny Foss lists, in this order, the types of individuals employers want to talk to:

  1. Your current manager or supervisor
  2. Your prior managers or supervisors
  3. Your current peers or clients
  4. Your prior peers or clients
  5. Your personal references or friends who will vouch for you (a very remote fifth)

The opinion of supervisors is key because these people directly monitor your performance, and the more recent their experience with you the better. Peers and clients are helpful depending on the role. In a customer service role, a former client’s opinion will carry much more weight.

If you’re just entering the workforce or have limited experience, you still have options. A professor you’ve worked closely with, especially in a course related to your work, can vouch for your skills and work ethic, as can academic advisors you’ve worked with, says Heather Huhman of Glassdoor.

Linkedin is a great way to keep in touch with your potential references, especially if you haven’t talked to the person in a while.

How to ask for a reference

Choosing your references is just the first step. Even if these individuals know you well, don’t just assume they’ll speak on your behalf. It’s important to actually ask them to be a reference, and do it early enough in your job search that they won’t feel put on the spot. Their availability is an essential factor to consider.

Make sure your message asking for permission feels authentic. This is a person you’re asking for a favor, and you want them to speak highly of you. Be willing to take no for an answer, and keep other options in mind. And remember that just because you’ve asked once doesn’t give you permission to use them for every job.

“You do need to ask them every time.” –Kathy Robinson, founder of TurningPoint

Provide necessary information

Even if the person has nothing but good things to say about your performance, it may sound insincere or meandering without a little focus. At the very least, provide your reference with the job you’re applying for and a copy of your resume, writes Forbes’ Cathy Lanzalaco. This gives them an idea of what aspects of your work history to focus on and what they are most qualified to speak on. It also helps to provide your references with a copy of the job description. This may give them ideas on what to discuss that you may not have considered.

Job-Hunt’s Jeff Lipschultz suggests providing your reference with questions you’d expect the interview to ask, including specific projects, skills, or attributes you think are particularly crucial. And don’t forget to give your references the name of the interviewer and company!

“Not everyone answers the phone these days when a strange name/number shows up on caller ID.  So being able to share this information makes it more likely that the call will be answered and the response provided quickly.” – Jeff Lipschultz

Don’t forget to say thank you

You may not always be informed a reference has been talked to, but the reference might reach out to you and let you know. Make sure to send your reference a personalized thank you message. Be willing to return the favor or help them out in another manner if possible, and if you get the job, be sure to let them know and thank them again. Be willing to be a reference in turn to those in your own network.

Don’t mention references on your resume

The phrase “references available upon request” is completely outdated, and it’s assumed you’ll have references when you apply. Save that valuable resume space for your information. The perk of only giving references when asked is that you’ll be able to go through these steps and prepare beforehand.

Wrap up

Companies usually ask for references towards the end of the hiring process because they are interested in you and want to verify what they’ve found. Your references can give you that final push to get the job, but you’ll want to make sure you’ve chosen the correct people and that they are fully prepared to give the most persuasive testimony possible. You’ve networked for a reason, and be sure to return the favor when you can.

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