There are a lot of things to consider when hunting for a job: your resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile, researching employers, potential interview questions, and more. Choosing the best job references, and following good etiquette when using them, isn’t always a priority for job seekers–but it should be. A reference can be the difference between a job offer and a rejection. With finding the right cultural fit such a priority for employers, it’s imperative for job seekers to have people who can speak to their skills, accomplishments, and attitude.
If you choose the right references, and respect their time and effort, your glowing reviews will be a lock.
Verifying your resume
Your resume should cover your work history, career highlights and accomplishments, educational achievements, skill set, and extras such as volunteer work or professional associations. One thing an employer is looking for when checking your references is verification of the information on your resume, including employment dates, job titles, graduation dates, and more.
And while we’re on the topic of verification, it’s imperative that you verify the contact information for your references in advance. Lacking current contact information signals to an employer that you are disorganized, and haven’t kept in touch with that person.
Keep it professional
Don’t use your mom as a reference–even if she’s also your boss at the family business. If you do happen to work for a family business, use a coworker who isn’t related to you to as a reference for that role.
Choosing the right references can indicate to employers that you have good judgment–and choosing the wrong references can indicate the opposite. If you held an entry-level help desk job at a large company, for example, the CIO is not going to be your best choice for a reference. You need someone familiar with specifics about your performance and your personal attributes. But that familiarity must be balanced with objectivity; your best work buddy is not a good choice for a reference.
Get permission in advance
You must get permission from each person ahead of time. The last thing you want is for a potential employer to call someone and find them caught off guard, unprepared to talk about you, or unwilling to serve as a reference. If your references reflect poorly on you, you will likely cost yourself a job offer.
Ideally, meet in person when asking someone to serve as a reference. Meeting over coffee or lunch is the perfect opportunity to go over your job search goals. It’s also a good idea to take along a copy of your resume so that you can go over your strengths and accomplishments. This is especially useful for references from jobs you worked at a few years ago (or more). Bring them up to speed on what you did since you last worked together, and what you’re looking for now.
If someone declines to be a reference, remember that it might not be personal. Many companies have policies requiring HR to handle all references. There are a number of reasons why anyone might be unable to serve as a reference.
Respect their time
The unfortunate truth is that a job search can last for many months. Leaning on the same people time and time again can be asking too much, regardless of the relationship. Serving as a reference requires not only time and energy, but availability on short notice. And remember–your job references may be acting as references for other people as well.
Rotating references is recommended. It keeps you from calling in the same favor from the same people too many times. If you think you’d have trouble securing enough references to be able to rotate them, remember you aren’t limited to former bosses only. Colleagues you worked closely with, repeat clients, a supervisor from your volunteer work, and professors–if you’re a recent graduate–are all possibilities.
If you have six to eight people to choose from, you can always choose the best ones for each job. You might pick people from certain industries, or focus on those who can talk about the magic you work in Excel rather than those who are familiar with your great presentation skills. Targeting your resume and cover letter may land you the interview; targeting your references may land you the job.
Time is of the essence during the hiring process. Always let your references know when they might be needed. They may have an upcoming vacation or deadline that overlaps with when an employer would contact them. Let them know when you have an interview scheduled; you should be prepared to provide references at the interview.
Just checking the availability of your references isn’t enough. Give them information about the role and company, the person or people who may be contacting them, and anything else relevant to the job. The better informed your references are, the more prepared they will be when contacted.
Leave references off your resume
The “references available upon request” line is obsolete–and makes your resume appear dated. Many people, particularly young people, include it because they think it makes them seem professional. The fact is that it’s expected that all candidates will have references. Having them doesn’t make you special–not having them means you have a problem to solve.
Most employers today check job references after the interview stage. It can be a time-consuming process, and employers for the most part don’t see the point in devoting that time until they’re interested in hiring a particular candidate. Remember, resumes are reviewed so quickly that some information always gets missed, making it unwise to have clutter on your resume. A line about references is clutter, and because it is typically occupies the prime real estate at the end of the resume, where the eye naturally falls, you risk employers seeing that line and missing something crucial.
Prepare a separate references sheet rather than mentioning references on your resume. This should include each reference’s name, title and company, contact information, and a brief explanation of your relationship to them. Even better, add the specific roles and skills each reference is familiar with. This gives you another chance to call out information you want to highlight.
You already know it’s important to be courteous and follow up after each job interview. Similarly, you should thank your job references each time they are called upon. Send a note letting them know you appreciate their time and effort, and update them on the outcome. If you send a card in the mail, consider including a gift card to a local coffee shop. And if you land the job, maybe dinner’s on you.