Your References and You: 11 Tips for Job Hunters

by Ellen Mehling, Career Development Consultant at METRO

Many job postings request a list of references; people who agree to be contacted by a hiring decision-maker to speak about your character, skills, and strengths for a specific job. Strong, positive recommendations from others are necessary in a job search. Here are ways to make this aspect of job hunting easier and more effective:

1. Networking comes first

You must cultivate references before you need them. It takes time for someone to get to know you and your work and to feel comfortable recommending you. It is never too early to start networking – if you are a student, don’t wait until the end of your studies. If you have trouble coming up with at least three people who would say “Yes” right now if you asked them to be a reference for you, then you need to do a lot more networking.

2. What info to include

Often a hiring manager or a job description will request “three references” (the number may vary but it is often three). What they want is a list with “References for [your name]” at the top and the name, title, professional contact info, and relationship to you, for each person on the list. This is a separate document from the resume and cover letter and may be requested before, during or after a first interview. It is a good idea to bring paper copies of this list to an interview, so if you are asked for references on the spot you can show you are prepared. Use bond paper too, it just looks and feels better in the hand than copier paper. Also, the line “References provided upon request” (or similar) is no longer necessary at the end of a resume; it is now understood that applicants will supply this information.

3. Always ask

Be sure to get permission before giving someone’s name as a reference. You want to be sure the person is willing and enthusiastic about recommending you. If you ask and the response is anything less than strongly positive, say, “Thanks anyway,” and ask someone else. A reluctant or lukewarm reference can be as damaging as a negative one, and calls your judgment into question for giving that person’s name as a reference.

4. The more the better

Though most employers will ask for only three references, your own list of people to choose from should be longer! It is best to have at least six or seven people who know you well and whom you are in current contact with, and who are eager to support you. Then when you are applying for a certain job, you can choose the three who would best be able to convey the characteristics and strengths that hiring manager would be most interested in. If you have more than six or seven, that’s even better, and diversity helps here too. A variety of people who’ve known you in different work-related settings will serve you well in your job hunt.

5. Supervisors > colleagues > professors/teachers > friends

The relationship of the reference to you matters to the hiring manager. Someone who has supervised you (in a job or internship, while volunteering, etc.) is preferred, but strong recommendations from those who have worked with you can also be helpful in your job search. Professors can also be used if you are a student or a recent graduate, but even if they know you well it is not in a job setting, so their endorsement may not carry quite as much weight as a supervisor or co-worker. Friends are the least valuable as references, and are usually used out of desperation because the applicant has no other options. Family members should not be used. A reference who is a former supervisor of yours and who is known personally by the hiring manager is the most powerful of all.

6. No means no

No one is obligated to be a reference for you, ever. If someone says “no”, that is the end of the conversation. Do not ask why or try to debate. If you ask a number of people who all decline, you should give some thought as to why your assessment of how they see you is so inaccurate.

7. Help them help you

The easier you make it for your references, the better the recommendations you are likely to get from them and the more likely they’ll be to agree to future reference requests. Send them a current resume and a copy of the job description for the position you have applied for. If there is something you would like them to mention in the reference letter or when speaking to the hiring manager (usually it’s on the phone), that is fine, but that should be a respectful request on your part – do not attempt to dictate exactly what your references will say.

8. Heads up!

Always let your references know that they may be receiving a phone call from a hiring manager. That way they can have fresh in their minds what they want to say about you and there won’t be any awkwardness as your reference tries to figure out what this voice on the phone is asking about. It will make you look good to the hiring manager if your reference says, “Yes, I was expecting your call.”

9. LinkedIn recommendations

Related to references are recommendations on LinkedIn (LI). Try to get at least a few of these; they’ll enhance the overall impression a hiring manager gets when visiting your LI page. You can also write recommendations for others on LI. Let your primary criteria for deciding to write a recommendation be that you know the other person well and can honestly say positive things about him/her with regard to work performance, character and reliability. Don’t offer or agree to give a recommendation just to get one in return – that is manipulative and can cause you regret if you get a reputation for recommending people you don’t know or who do not succeed if hired.

10. Be a reference for others

You may be asked to be a reference yourself, and you should whenever possible. If someone you’ve supervised or worked with is laid off, your offer to serve as a reference will be much appreciated. As with the LinkedIn recommendations, this should be done honestly and with no strings attached.

11. Say ‘Thank you’

Remember you are asking for a favor. Your references give their time and effort and put their own reputations on the line by recommending you. These are no small things. Always say “Thank you” after someone has recommended you, and if you get the job, an additional brief note of thanks is a good idea. You might need the assistance of your references in the future in some way, therefore common courtesy and gratitude can keep the relationship continuing and positive.


Have any other tips? Comment on our Facebook page