How to Get Great Job References

by Julie Rains on 12 October 2011 0 comments
Photo: Kap Leung

You’ve had interviews with a great company, and now the hiring manager has asked for references from former bosses. Who do you choose? How do you ask? What info should you pass along? Here’s the scoop from a real-life job seeker who has landed two jobs in the past few years, plus insights from my work with a recruiter. (See also: Stupid Things to Put in Your Cover Letter)

Who You Should Ask

Think about your past jobs and direct supervisors. Write down names and gather contact information, including phone numbers. From the comprehensive list, choose those who will speak highly of you and have these characteristics:

  • Your work reflected positively on her performance and your contributions elevated her standing in the company; you may have been instrumental in launching a new product line that led to her promotion, executed a project that resulted in numerous accolades, or simply made her day-to-day work life easier because she could count on you.
     
  • He regularly makes presentations to customers or top-level officials. As a result, he can articulate ideas to decision-makers, easily respond to objections, and influence people in making decisions.
     
  • She has changed jobs or career paths since you both worked together. As such, she understands the challenges of searching for a new position and may give extra effort in serving as your reference.

Finally, when compiling the final list of references, try to find bosses who have personalities that are different from each other. This approach shows that you work effectively with many types of people and increases the odds that one may connect especially well with the hiring manager.

How You Should Get in Touch

Make a phone call to get in touch with your references. Quickly assess each supervisor's availability and willingness to serve as a reference.

An email exchange is generally not as effective as a call because of the time involved in writing and formulating thoughtful messages. If the reference has questions that you did not anticipate, you can respond immediately in a phone conversation. Follow up by email to send supplementary information if you'd like (such as a job description), but ideally cover key points in a phone call.

If the hiring manager is serious about getting you onboard soon, he will be making calls very quickly, so briefing your references should be done as quickly as possible.

What You Should Tell Your References

Cover these items in your phone call:

  • The responsibilities of the position and your role in the company as you envision it, explained in terms that the reference understands based on his experience and knowledge
     
  • What you’ve been doing since you last spoke with your former boss

Be brief but thorough. Respect the time of your references, as you are asking them to do extra work outside of their day-to-day routines.

When Non-Boss References Are Needed

Hiring managers may ask to speak with former direct supervisors only, depending on their company's hiring protocol. But many decision-makers are also interested in hearing from customers, vendors, and coworkers. Some potential employers may even prefer talking with non-supervisors because bosses offer a limited perspective; those who have worked alongside of you may have more astute insights. Even though these relationships may be less formal, take the time to contact them just as you would a past supervisor.

These reference checks may cover this type of information:

  • Professional strengths
     
  • Contributions that are memorable
     
  • Reliability in terms of work habits and attendance (even for management candidates)
     
  • Ability to get along with people without sacrificing the ability to make tough decisions and get things done
     
  • Domain knowledge that allows you to be successful without having to be micromanaged

Based on conversations with my recruiter friend, consistency of comments is perhaps the most important element of the reference-check process. Ideally, how you have presented yourself to a potential employer matches what former bosses and colleagues say about you.

How Recommendations Fit With References

When I think of references, I also think of recommendations on LinkedIn and letters of recommendation. These complement rather than substitute for job references.

Along with a brief explanation of how the letter-writer knows you, the best recommendations include:

  • Clear description of your unique value and strengths
  • Example of a contribution and its context, which illustrates your value and strengths

Giving references is often the last step in landing a job. At this point, you may think of reference checks as a formality. But until you have the offer in hand, keep your effort level high so that you can have the best possible references. Spend some time thinking about who to ask, getting in touch as soon as you can, and preparing them to share great things about you.

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