When applying for a job, your references are an endorsement. They endorse who you are, what you've done, what you can do...basically anything and everything about you. It's important to pick your references wisely. References are literally the last factor in you getting a job offer; they potential employer was impressed by your resume and your interview. Your references are the last chance you have to impress and you need to be strategic about who you use as a reference.
- How many references should you list? Most employers will ask for 2-3 references. I usually list 5 and in the order I would like them contacted. Why do I list so many? I had a job offer once that was conditional on my reference check and all 3 of my references happened to be away at the same time. It took over a week for my employer to finally be able to speak to one reference and for them to make a formal offer. Plus, it allows me to list a variety of different types of references and the potential employer can pick and chose who they would like to call.
- What kind of references should you use? It's a good idea to include a variety of references, as they can speak to you and your abilities in different ways:
- Professional references are the most common and are usually former (or in some cases, current) employers. They can speak to what are like as an employee, your skill set, what you are like in a job setting, how you interact with other employees, projects you've worked on, etc...it is very career/job focused.
- Volunteer references are usually overlooked but are important. Who you are in your professional life can differ from who you are as a volunteer. Professionally, you get paid to do a job- you have to do it. Volunteer work is something you decide to do because you want too, not because you have too. Volunteer references are similar to your professional references, but with a twist; it can speak to skills that you have but don"t use in your current job, who you are as a person and your personality. And it shows that you do volunteer work/are involved, which is always a good thing for potential employers to know.
- Personal references can talk about who you are as a person, your personality, your interests. Yes, it's great to know that someone is qualified for the job, but you also want to make sure they will fit in with organizational culture. It's always good to get personal insight into a potential employee.
- Work related references are my favourite. Professional references would be people you work for, like your supervisor. Work related references are people you work with. For example, I was applying for a job that was focused on community outreach. I used a community partner from my previous job as a reference. She was able to speak about how I cultivated and maintained the relationship. I had a volunteer I worked closely with for 3 years that I have used as a reference. These references are people you have a working relationship with, but aren't necessarily your supervisor or someone you report too.
- Job related references are references related to the job you are applying for. If a job has a supervisory component to it, I'll list summer students (who are the only employees I have ever supervised). Applying for a job at a tennis club? List your high school tennis coach. Does the CEO sit on a volunteer board with a family friend? That family friend would be a great personal reference. These references might not be true 'professional' or 'work related' references, but they can speak specifically to the job you are applying for and/or make a direct connection between you and the job/organization.
- Who should you ask? Your references should know you fairly well and should be able to answer questions about you and your abilities. They should also be someone you're confident will give you a good references, someone you trust. They should be familiar with your most recent role and the work you did. They should be someone that knows you; what's the point of listing your supervisor if she was never in the office when you were? Most importantly, they should be good communicators and comfortable speaking to others.
- Prep your references:
- Tell them you will be using them as a reference. If you can, tell them when they might expect a call and who will be calling (the company, and if you know, a specific person). Not only does this give them a heads up that they might be getting a call, but they can make sure they take a call. I had a reference who had two days booked full of meetings and she told her assistant to interrupt them if a call came from my potential employer.
- Send the job description so they know what you are applying for and what qualifications the potential employer is looking for. This will help them speak to why you'd be perfect for the job.
- Sent them your resume. It's also a good idea to send them your resume so they know what the potential employer was looking at.
- Share insight from the interview. I had an interview where I was asked a lot about event registration processes. I mentioned this to my reference and asked him to talk about the two different registration management systems we had used, and how I had redone and streamlined an event registration process. If there is an area that a substantial amount of time is spent on, tip your reference off to this and ask them to speak specifically to this.
- Did you miss something? Have you ever left an interview and realized you should have answered a question differently? Or explained a real life situation you were in? Tell your reference! They might be able to incorporate it into conversation with your potential employer.
- Tell your references about conversation other references had. I was applying for a part-time position, and my potential employer was concerned I wouldn't be happy working part-time and would look for another job. They mentioned this to Reference A, who told me. I called Reference B and tipped her off. She was able to tell my potential employer that she knew I was looking forward to working part-time so I could focus on writing, doing more volunteer work and participating in a mentorship program- all stuff that I hadn't been able to do when working full time.
- Say thank you. This is such a basic thing, but make sure you do it. It cane be a thank you email, text, note, or even phone call. It's polite to thank someone when they do something for you. I usually send a handwritten note right after I submit their name to a potential employer and thank them for letting me use them as a reference. If I get a job offer, I call them and let them know I got the job and thank them again.
I mentioned a few examples of good references in the above points, but I also wanted to share two stories of bad reference examples. Learn from these examples.
- I used a reference once that was not a good communicator. I applied for a job that wanted to do three reference checks. My first two references went really well, and I knew that the job offer was contingent on my third reference. The potential employer had wanted a specific person for my third reference. I had purposely never used this person as a reference before and I was so hesitant to use her. I knew she would give me a good reference but I wasn't sure she would be a good reference because she hesitates before she speaks. It's just who she is...she always hesitates before answering any question. If you know this about her, you know it's a character trait. If you don't know her, you wonder why she's hesitating. What's she hiding? What's she not saying? A potential employer can see this as a negative and my potential employer must have seen it as a negative. Not only did I not get the job, but when the same job was posted two months later and I applied, I didn't even get an interview. Two months after that, the same job came up again and I was contacted by a recruiter who thought I would be perfect for the position and asked me to apply; I told her about my past experience and didn't want to apply, she insisted I would be perfect and that they would at least give me an interview. I applied, but no interview followed.
- I was actually hiring someone and doing a reference check. The conversation went like this:
Me: Hi Reference, this is Melissa calling from Company. Do you have a couple of minutes to chat or are you in the middle of something?
Reference: Depends. Why are you calling and how did you get this number?
Me: I interviewed Candidate and she has you listed as a reference.
Reference: Of sure. I have time to talk.
Too late, the damage was done. I was so taken aback by this response and how rude it was, that I didn't make the job offer to the person who was my ideal candidate. Maybe this person is always rude and abrupt, if that's the case, they shouldn't have been used as a reference (see example above). Or, maybe this person thought they were getting an unsolicited call from my company, and that's why they were rude. In which case, the candidate should have prepped their reference; told them they were going to list them as a reference and that they had had an interview with my company and that I had requested references.
References really can make or break your job offer. Like I said before, your references are your last chance to impress a potential employer.
Looking for more in this series? Check out The Young Professional tag.