How to Be a Good Reference: 4 Ways to Help Someone Find a Job

filling out employment reference check

Half of employers said references played a major role in hiring decisions | Source: iStock

A personal recommendation carries a lot of weight. Which product are you more likely to buy – the one with the fancy packaging or the one your best friend said was awesome? Most people would go for the latter.

Those making decisions about who to hire use the same logic. When it comes to selecting future employees, references are nearly as important as a person’s resume. Nearly half of hiring managers surveyed by the Addison Group, a staffing and search firm, said references were a major factor in making hiring decisions, compared to 56% who said the resume was crucial.

Good references clearly matter for job seekers, which is why it can be more than a little nerve-wracking when you get a call or email from a former co-worker asking you to vouch for them. You know your words could be the thing standing between them and a great job offer, and the pressure is on to not screw this up. But if you’re new to the reference-giving game (or just a little rusty), it can be hard to know what you should and shouldn’t say when an employer calls to inquire about someone you know.

If you’ve been asked to serve as a reference for a friend or colleague, here are four tips for how to ace your part and help them land a new job.

1. Don’t do it if you’re not comfortable

Career experts agree: Don’t sign on to provide a reference for someone you can’t endorse with confidence. A lukewarm recommendation may do the job seeker more harm than good. If you were disappointed in a person’s job performance or don’t think you know enough about their skills or experience to comment, it’s OK to politely decline to be a reference.

“If you feel uncomfortable speaking on this person’s behalf, say so,” Amanda Augustine, a career advice expert for TopResume, told The Cheat Sheet. “It would be better for them to find someone else to serve as a reference than to have someone who won’t be able to genuinely advocate for their candidacy.”

2. Take it seriously

Handsome businessman in suit speaking on the phone in office, suit, style

One-fifth of employers have rejected a candidate after calling his references | Source: iStock

Referencing checking isn’t just a formality. Managers reject 21% of candidates after talking to their references, a survey by staffing service OfficeTeam found. Employers who do take the time to check references are searching for information to help make a final hiring decision, so what you say about a person really does matter. Treat the conversation with the potential employer as seriously as you would your own job search.

“When hiring managers narrow the field to a few potential candidates, the reference check often becomes the deciding factor,” Robert Hosking, an executive directors at OfficeTeam, said in a statement.

3. Prep yourself

Don’t wait until your reference’s prospective employer calls you to think about what you’re going to say. The person you’re recommending should have provided you with a copy of their current resume, and you should review it and familiarize yourself with their skills and experience. If possible, you should also get a copy of the job description for the position they’re seeking, Augustine suggested, in addition to asking if there are specific talents or projects they’d like you to mention when the employer calls.

“As the candidate, it’s their job to prepare you to be the best reference possible,” she said. “If it’s been awhile since you worked together, don’t be shy about asking for specific examples or details to jog your memory.”

4. Don’t lie

Singing your co-worker’s praises is one thing, but don’t exaggerate their experience or fib about their flaws in an attempt to help them get the job. Providing an inaccurate reference isn’t going to do the person any favors, especially if it leads to them being stuck in a position which isn’t a good fit.

“Don’t lie to the prospective employer during the reference check,” Augustine said. “If they ask if the person was habitually late for work and they were, you can downplay the behavior, but don’t lie. If you’re asked a challenging question about their work, either because you didn’t work with them in that capacity or for other reasons, let the reference checker know that you are unable to comment.”

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