Choosing A Professional Reference 2.0

While I do watch sports I don’t compete in them, even though some friends are pushing pickleball at me aggressively. For me, my competitive nature shows up in the form of helping friends and colleagues get things like jobs, contracts, fellowships, grants, and press. Yep, I’m weird that way. I love being a conduit to opportunity, but always within the bounds of what I believe to be true. I’m a competitive reference! 


Most weeks I serve as a reference for someone to improve their likelihood of success. I remember the first time I was asked to do so at 22 and working at my first full-time role at an educational program. My friend and fellow 22-year old co-worker who managed the front desk asked me because he was trying to pick up a second job, ahhhh nonprofit salaries, at a local sporting goods chain. He said my last name sounded “very managerial”. I loved being his advocate. Giving a reference is sales with the same mindset of the product (person that you champion) and fit (do I think what they seek is a good fit) in a situation where hopefully everyone is better off.

I love the chance to be a person’s professional wingman. However, I won’t lie on someone’s behalf, and will only give a reference for people I know well enough to share an informed opinion about.

As you reflect on the person to choose as a reference  it behooves you to be thoughtful and intentional. Here are a few questions I would advise you to consider as you select your person beyond the fallback points of “did they manage you?” and/or “does their title sound impressive and worthwhile?” to really focus on.

How well do they know you?

Typically, the person checking references will take what the reference shares more serIously the longer the relationship, the more recent the contact and the broader the perspective the person has on your skills and tendencies. Your reference can be fantastic in all the other ways, but if it isn’t drawn from enough experience, it may not be received in a favorable way. 

How much work will they put in?

In order to do the best job I can in a reference check, I will spend time reviewing the following things:

            -The opportunity being sought (job, fellowship, grant, rfp, etc)

            -The website of the host organization

            -The LinkedIn profile of the person with whom I’ll be speaking 

            -The resume or LinkedIn profile of the person I’ll be speaking about

I might also ask my contact to have a chat prior where I will ask them to share the concerns the employer has raised in the interview so I can prepare in advance. 

This all takes time. At minimum share the first two items on the list above with the person doing you the favor so they access the information more easily. 

Can they talk about you well?

As a reference, after reviewing the job description I often have questions about why the person wants this opportunity. Particularly, if this goes counter to what they’ve done in the past or what they’ve recently told me they are seeking, I’ll ask questions about fit. Hopefully, it’s obvious, but if not, I want to be ready with a smart and convincing answer. 

I will also rarely say “I don’t know” to a question. Rather, I will share something that is the strongest connection to the attribute they are testing for. I would rather give a small positive than nothing useful even if it is tangential. 

Can they answer questions well?

It’s important that your reference has an understanding of you, the opportunity and why there is a fit. Are they effective communicators overall? You can tell your reference, “I expect that they might ask about the following things in case you want to prepare in advance”, and if they express hesitation,” you might ask them if they’d like to prepare for the call together. 

Can they offer thoughtful criticism? Or ask good follow-up questions?

No one expects anyone to be perfect. We are all works in progress. The reference who says you are amazing at everything is a reference people often won’t take seriously. I had a recent conversation offering a reference where I shared that the person is extremely direct and while they aren’t hurtful in communication, some people have a harder time with that communication style. The person still got the job!  

If I’m checking somebody’s reference, I’ll often ask their reference a question that you are free to borrow to share with the person you are seeking as a reference. Most often I’ll start with something like,  “What else, if anything, are you most worried about with them as a candidate?”

Choose your reference carefully, because in competitive situations they make all the difference in your getting access to opportunity or being told by your friends that it was great that you were so close. 


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