How to Ensure You Get the Best References You Can

Not to sound alarmist, but a good reference can be the difference between landing your next job or continuing the search. References provide an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses from on-the-job experience. Because of this, hiring managers weigh them heavily when making decisions.

With references an essential part of any application, you’ll want to ensure you get the best you can. Here’s how.

Choose your references wisely

Your first step is to choose who you’ll ask to serve as a reference. That seems simple, but this step is crucial to your success.

Don’t select somebody just because you like them. Instead, pick people who are engaging and can speak highly of your personality and work ethic. You also want them to present well under pressure since serving as a reference can be disquieting.

Bonus points if the reference holds a respected position, like a supervisor or professor, as this adds credibility. But the best references will have a background that relates to the job you’re applying for and may already work at the company.

Personal or professional reference?

Some companies let you list either professional or personal references. Always choose the professional option. There can be some overlap obviously, but a reference’s value is in their ability to speak about you in a professional capacity.

Ask permission

Most people will want to see you succeed and will be happy to serve as a reference. Even so, don’t assume. Ask anyway.

How you ask depends on your relationship. A phone call or face-to-face chat create that personal touch. However, if you think the request may put them in an awkward position, send an email so they can politely decline.

If they do, don’t take it personally. There may extenuating circumstances such as busy schedules, life events, or conflicts of interest. You want your references’ full attention, so them backing out is better for you too.

Offer context and coaching

Tell your references who you are applying with, what the position is, and what it entails. You don’t want them blindsided by a phone call they didn’t expect. Do this for every job application you intend to list them as a reference on.

Then offer any guidance they may need. For example, it may have been a spell since you worked with them. A copy of your resume can update them on your progress, while your portfolio can exhibit your latest work and professional growth.

Also, consider discussing the company you’re applying with. If your references understand the company’s culture, mission, and work ethic, they can better align you with those qualities in a conversation.

Update your phone book

Get a current email, title, phone number, and work address from each reference. Settle on the dates you worked together and any other pertinent information. It is better to secure all this information early in the process, rather than bothering your references for every detail as it arises. 

Can you use current colleagues?

What if you want to ask a colleague at your current job, but you don’t want your supervisors to know you’re looking? It’s a predicament but you have options.

You can ask your colleague and request they not mention your search—though, we don’t recommend this because it puts that colleague in an awkward position.

Instead, offer to provide a reference list to the hiring manager after a job offer. Or simply find references elsewhere.

The thank you

Always follow up with a thank you. It’s an easy and simple gesture that pays first-rate social dividends. It’s nice to let everyone know if you land the job, too.

Strong references, strong network

It doesn’t take much to ensure you get the best references possible. The steps are simple, the process straightforward. These same steps also help you reinforce your relationships with friends and former colleagues, allowing you to maintain a strong and vibrant professional network for years to come.

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