It’s one thing to polish your résumé and perfect your cover letters, plus wear the right colors to a job interview and make sure you impress a potential employer. That’s all on you to make sure you have the right skill set and can show an interviewer why you’re the best fit for the position. But then comes the part that can seem completely out of your control — providing references.
When it comes to references, you’re handing off the baton to a former supervisor, colleague, or boss to ensure a potential employer feels confident about making you a job offer. In a tight job market, those references can sometimes make the difference between you being offered the position or it being given away to another candidate, said Kelly Mattice, a vice president of workforce management and recruitment firm The Execu|Search Group.
“Almost every employer is going to ask you for references,” Mattice said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “You shouldn’t be surprised, you should be prepared.”
How do you know that a reference is going to help your cause, not hurt it or take you out of the running completely? There are a few things you should do to make sure your references work for you, and that you’re not accidentally giving a future employer the inside scoop on your inter-office feud from five years ago. Though you might put more effort into your résumé or job applications, the references are just as vital and also take some preparation. “You’d be surprised how little people think about this step in the process,” Mattice said. That thought process can make all the difference in your job search. Take a look at some practical advice Mattice offers for you to sharpen your list of references.
1. Have a variety of sources
To give employers a well-rounded view of who you are and what you can offer a future company, you’ll need a well-rounded group of references. Having a rock-solid set of five reference letters on hand for job applications is a good rule of thumb, Mattice said, since most employers will ask for two or three. You can send all of them and allow them the choice for follow-up calls, she added, or you can choose the few that most speak to the position in question.
No matter the number, variety is key. “You never know what sort of reference an employer is going to feel is appropriate,” Mattice explained. Some employers might but a heavy emphasis on your direct supervisor’s input, while others might be looking for references from your volunteer position on the weekends. Getting a letter of recommendation from the head of your company is always a huge bonus, but coworkers might be able to speak to your strengths on a more personal level. By having all of these options in your arsenal, you’ll be able to provide a wealth of positive information about yourself from all facets of your life.
2. Keep in touch
It’s great if you have slam-dunk references, but you need to invest a little bit of your time if you want to keep them that way. If you’ve stopped working with or for that person, Mattice says you should catch up with them at least once per year. Check on how they’re doing, projects they’re completing, and interests they’re cultivating out of the office. This way, it won’t seem so forced and one-sided when you call again asking for a reference.
No one likes one-sided favors, Mattice explains, and you’re more likely to be in their good graces if you genuinely know current information about their life. However, this contact serves a dual purpose. On top of genuinely knowing that person, they might also be a good resource for future job opportunities that weren’t originally on your radar. By sending an email or calling for a quick chat, you might learn about options you didn’t realize were out there.
3. Make sure they can speak to your skills
Though you might need to call once in a while to keep the relationship fresh, you probably shouldn’t be reaching so far back in your digital rolodex to find a good reference. If you’re new to the workforce, you’re likely relying on your first boss and previous college professors for references, which Mattice says is fine. But as you spend decades in your career, make sure that your references can talk about your recently acquired skills and talents, not the fact that you aced economic theory your junior year of college.
The saying is “What have you done lately?” Mattice reminds us, meaning you’re looking for people who can speak to your most relevant — and timely — qualifications and abilities. If that means dropping a reference from four jobs ago and replacing him or her with a more current option, so be it.
4. Provide relevant information
Though the reference call itself if out of your hands, you can ensure that your reference has all the tools he needs to be your advocate. Provide him with the job description you’re applying for, and perhaps an updated version of your résumé. That way, he can speak directly to the skills he’s witnessed in your that will apply to the new position, instead of talking about your sense of water cooler humor.
If you can tell your references more about the position and what you hope to achieve in that role, they’re more likely to be able to further your cause, Mattice said. Otherwise, they might not know what a future employer is looking for, or what qualities will make you stand out from the pool of applicants. “Your reference needs to know that information so they can highlight you in that,” Mattice explained.
5. Give advance warning
If you’re providing updated information about the new application, this should already be a no-brainer. But to ensure that all goes smoothly, it’s an absolute requirement that you give a reference advance warning they might be getting a call from a recruiter or prospective employer. This way, they’ll be prepared to answer eloquently and will have had the chance to prepare their thoughts about what makes you right for the job.
This also gives you the chance to make sure that your references will remember you and that they’ll have positive things to say about your work ethic and skills. It might seem rather elementary, but Mattice said she’s come across applicants whose managers had no idea who they were — and others who had fired the applicant in question. Suffice it to say, those aren’t going to be great endorsements.
What if you’re looking to leave your current job, have a great working relationship with your supervisor, but you haven’t advertised you’re planning to leave? Mattice said most future employers will be willing to wait until you’ve resigned or announced you’re searching for a new job to call that particular person. Some job offers will be contingent upon receiving a solid reference from that boss, but in most cases it’s something that can be negotiated during the interview process.
References are incredibly important, but if you cultivate your list and give those people the same care as you do your listed skills in a cover letter, you’re sure to make them assets, not liabilities.