The Jobseeker’s Guide to References

The Human Resources folks like to check job applicants’ references. Of American companies, 76% will contact the people on your list of references.

They do it because checking references is one way prospective employers can add to what they learn from your resume, LinkedIn profile, and interviews. These reference checks are just part of a comprehensive screening process, which might even include inquiries into immigration status, credit reports, drug screening, and criminal background checks.

What people who know you say about you can be the piece of the puzzle that paves the way to a job offer, or throws up a detour sign.  Let’s see how you can put your best foot forward.

Who’s Most Likely to Check References?

Not every company will bother to make those calls to people you list as references. But it’s best to be prepared and get your references list together.

If you apply for a position where you’ll have access to confidential information — like info on other employees or on the company’s clients – it’s probable that you’ll be subject to reference checks. If the job you want is in finance, information technology, or customer-facing positions, you can expect to have references checked.

The best time to start thinking about your references is when you’re putting together your resume, not when you’re submitting applications. Why wait until you’re getting called in for an interview to prepare something that can be a deal maker or deal breaker?

Select Your References

The advantage of preparing your references is that you can take the upper hand and identify your best reference people. Although there’s no guarantee human resources will contact references in the order you’d like to have them contacted (best first) you can still list them as though they were prizes – first place at the top of the list. Hiring people have the option to contact people who aren’t even on your list, but you don’t have much control over that.

You will want to select three to seven individuals to be your top tier references. These individuals may be current or former managers or supervisors, co-workers, peers, or team members, current or former customers of the company, vendors or suppliers, and people you have supervised.

Most employers will want at least two of your references to be former employers. If you don’t have recent work experience, you can list members of committees you volunteer with, or pro bono clients. If you have recent educational experience, you can also list professors, faculty members, and advisors.

The important thing is to select people who know your work well, who have seen you in action. It’s better to have people who can speak about your particular skills and accomplishments than it is to list a “big name” as a reference. If someone seems hesitant to serve as your reference, ask someone else.

Hiring managers also like to see some personal references, people who will vouch for you being dependable, honest, and have good judgment. A personal reference should know you well, and have known you for at least five years, but not be a relative. Good choices are a business acquaintance, teacher, coach, doctor, religious leader, neighbor, or a landlord.

Well-chosen personal references can go a long way towards tilting the decision to hire you in your favor because they give an added dimension to your personality and worth.

Make sure all your references are people who are relatively easy to contact.

Reach Out to Your References Early

It can take some time to track down and communicate with all your references. You’ll want to update them with what’s new in your career, and verify their contact information. You don’t want to try to do all that while you’re researching and preparing for a job interview.

If you’re also asking your references to give you LinkedIn recommendations, try to schedule them so all of your recommendations aren’t coming in on or around the same date. That looks a bit hokey – just one more reason why starting early pays off.

Ask Permission from Your References

Once you’ve decided who you would like to be your top tier references, contact them and ask if they are willing. It’s best to call each one directly instead of emailing. If possible, arrange for an in-person meeting. Make it convenient for them and offer to buy lunch or coffee. They are doing you a favor!

Keep in mind: Not everyone you’ve worked for — or worked with — will be a good reference for you. You want a reference that can be as enthusiastic about you as you are about getting the job. Not all potential references will be able to provide this kind of stellar recommendation. But some of your references may be hesitant to say no to you directly if you ask.

You can give them a way to let themselves off the hook, without turning you down directly. Instead of asking, “Will you be a reference for me?” Ask them, “Do you feel you know me well enough to serve as a reference for me?” Or ask, “Will you be a great reference for me?” If the answer is anything less than enthusiastic, you can collect their information, but not list them on your preferred reference list. It’s perfectly fine to ask a reference to support you, but then not include his name on your list.

The in-person meeting is a good time to ask someone for a LinkedIn recommendation. Check first to see if he is on LinkedIn, since he will need a LinkedIn account to recommend you.

Remember to update your contact with what you’ve been up to, especially if they knew you at a previous job. Let them know what you’re looking for in your next job. Filling them in makes it easy for them to be specific and betters your chance of a positive reference.

Once you’ve received the go-ahead, send a letter or email thanking each person for agreeing to be a reference. Send each a current copy of your resume, or promise to send them a copy if it’s not finalized. I offer fast turnaround on my resume service, so I won’t keep you or your references waiting.

You can help a hiring manager get a fuller picture of you by quickly and professionally providing good, reliable, positive references. Make his job easy and you look good. When you look good, you’re one giant step closer to that job offer.


Author: Mir Garvy

I’ve written resumes for 2,000+ job seekers just like you—and helped my clients land jobs with companies like Amazon, SAS, Google, Duke University, Travelocity, Cisco Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, Expedia, and IBM.