References can end up being a critical component of your job search. Many people will list references on their applications and on their resume (which is not where they belong) and not think much of it. They completed a lengthy application, submitted a resume and cover letter and believe that they are finally done with the tedious application process. There is, however, much more to be done!
The majority of positions require you to list several references on an application. Job seekers understand that a reference can confirm you were, in fact, an employee at your previous company and that you performed the role that you listed. Many corporate or legal guidelines only permit the confirmation of this information. Still, if you believe that is all a reference typically does, you have been misinformed and are not utilizing them correctly!
There is much more to a reference than just listing a name on a piece of paper. You don't just want a reference that can just answer yes or no about you and your work history. You also certainly don't want anyone that will paint you and your performance in a negative light. You want a GREAT reference that will champion for you! A great reference will be able to demonstrate to a hiring manager that you were a valuable asset to your previous company. This person knows about the work you performed, where you contributed to the team, and the impact your involvement created. It is preferably someone you worked closely with and would be willing to spend his or her time speaking to a stranger about you!
Here's the secret sauce on how to get a great reference.
1. Choose your references wisely. I know this sounds like common sense, but individuals can get caught up in thinking that it has to be the immediate supervisor who is listed as the reference for each role. This is not the case especially if the supervisor was not involved with you on a consistent basis.
While a supervisor would be good, they are not the end-all be-all. It could be a colleague that holds a similar position that you work closely with, or it could be someone in another department with whom you constantly collaborate. If you are a recent grad and you don't have professional roles to pull references from look to a professor, a coach, internship manager, or advisor. The key is you want to choose someone who likes you and sees your value.
In addition, you want to choose someone who can answer questions and speak articulately. They will be speaking to your potential new boss or HR liaison. They believe you chose your references carefully and they are a powerful reflection on you.
2. Ask permission to use someone as a reference. Don't just assume you can list someone without asking. It is not fair to blindside someone or put them in the hot seat unexpectedly. They need to be comfortable with you sharing their information and be at ease with recommending you. It is their reputation on the line as well. By politely asking for permission to utilize this connection as a reference you can also avoid accidentally choosing someone who will hurt your chances of getting the job. Sometimes we are unaware of people's true feelings or intentions toward us. By giving the opportunity for someone to decline, you are giving both of you a chance to avoid awkwardness or embarrassment.
If someone declines, accept the answer; thank him or her for being forthright, and move on to someone else. If they agree, move forward with them on your list. Keep these tips in mind if someone asks you to do them the kindness of being a reference: Don't agree if you can't speak positively on their behalf!
3. Prepare/Notify your references ahead of time. Your references can't help you if they aren't in the loop. Once you have received the green light that it is okay to use your reference you need to prep them. Make sure you let them know where you are applying and for what role. Keeping them abreast of the current situation will help keep them from being caught off guard.
The last thing you want to do is hold up the hiring manager because they could not reach your listed references. Now, when a strange number shows up on their cell, they are more likely to answer because they are anticipating the call.
Go the extra mile and send them a copy of your current resume so they are up to date with your work history. This way they can look it over and review your accomplishments and be sure to highlight certain skills and roles for you. It may also jog their memory on projects you were both involved in if it has been awhile since you have worked together. They will be more prepared to speak on your behalf if you prep them.
4. Don't be a stranger. It is important that you remain in contact with your references. You can't expect someone you worked with ten years ago and haven't spoken with since to sing your praises or even remember you. They do not need to be your best friends, but you do have to continue the connection. Check in with them periodically during the year and make sure you stay current with them on LinkedIn. Congratulating them on a new job, anniversary, or a promotion is a nice way to continue rapport. If you had a personal relationship with them outside the office, utilize holidays, birthdays, and any milestones in their lives as ways to touch base. If time flies by and you find yourself forgetting to do these things, put reminders on your calendar. It will be worth its weight in gold!
5. Utilize recommendations on LinkedIn. With so many jobs allowing you to apply straight through LinkedIn, the recommendations option is a great way to gather positive feedback about your roles and have it for all potential employers to see! You can gather brief statements from clients, employers, coworkers, etc. and keep a running log of your endorsements. It requires a little be more work on the part of the references as well as you since you will need to extend personal invitations, but they can be a very powerful tool. Warning: Be ready to reciprocate the gesture!
Taking the extra steps with your references can make the difference. Some candidates are on the bubble with hiring managers and it is their references that can make or break the hiring decision. I have seen candidates who weren't the best interviewee but whose great references won over the hiring manager and landed the position. In the eyes of an employer, your past performance is a key indicator of future results. Hopefully, you will use the advice given and get the most out of your references in the future!