How to Help Your References Help You

Last week, I talked about selecting and contacting your references. Today I want to give you some helpful tips on nurturing those relationships that give you references.  I’ll also run down what you can do about any negative references you get.

What to Tell Your Reference People

When someone is good enough to agree to be a reference for you, make it easy for them to help you. Prepare a references page that you can email or hand over to a prospective employer. Make the style match the format and font style of your resume. I provide reference sheets for my clients for a very small fee.

Here’s the format I suggest:

Name of person to contact
Job title
Current employer
City, state, zip
Phone number
Email address
How long you’ve known the person
In what capacity you’ve known the person

Here’s an example of this format:

Jan Jones
ABC Company
25 Whitehall Lane
New York, NY 10010
(310) 555-0932
Former Supervisor at XYZ Company for three years (2007-2010).

The reason a physical address is helpful is that it can help the person checking the reference to know where they are telephoning (East Coast? West Coast? Europe?).

When you list a reference’s phone number, you could also mention what times of day to reach them, for example, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Include how you know the person so that the person checking the reference has some context as to who this person is to you and what information they can supply.

In addition to your list of references and contact information, you can also provide a printed page that includes excerpts from or reprints of your LinkedIn Recommendations. You can include LinkedIn recommendations and excerpts from letters of recommendation with your resume. Sometimes I put them in an Endorsements section.

When should you give your references to an employer? The easiest answer is: When you’re asked. Sometimes you’ll be asked on the initial application. Other times, you’ll be asked in the job interview itself. If you’re not asked, it’s fine to offer them at the job interview.

Never submit your references with the resume and cover letter. Don’t put “References available upon request” on your resume either. Prospective employers know you’ll provide your references when they ask for them! Use that space on your resume for something more useful.

How to Better Your Odds

When you have an interview scheduled, give your references a heads up. It’s helpful to forward a copy of the job posting. If it’s been a while since they agreed to be your reference, ask if it’s still okay to list them.

Give them the company name, position title you’re seeking, and the name of  the person who may be calling. Let them know some of the job’s responsibilities so they can discuss specific skills, experience, and achievements from their work with you.

Stay in touch with your references. Update them on your job search. Contact them soon after any interview to let them know how it went. Ask them if they were contacted and what questions they were asked. Be sure to thank them for their support, and maybe write a handwritten thank you note.

If your job search continues for a long period of time, your references will probably have been called a number of times. It’s smart to check in with them periodically, just to show your appreciation and to make sure you can still count on them.

What Are References Typically Asked?

According to the 2010 SHRM survey, most companies ask:

  • Names of your former employers, your job titles, dates of employment, and salary
  • Your degrees, school attendance, and academic accomplishments
  • The responsibilities you had in previous positions

Companies might also want to verify licenses and certifications, check for professional disciplinary action, authenticate military discharge information, and double-check public speaking engagements, special projects, or articles published.

Prospective employers are generally trying to evaluate your specific qualifications. But hiring people also want to get a handle on the  “intangibles” — those  qualities that tell them if you are a good cultural fit for the company. To that end, they may ask about your communication style, your planning and decision-making skills, and your leadership capabilities.

There are two red flags that are  likely to derail a job offer. One is discrepancies in dates of previous employment. And the other is discrepancies in education degrees. These facts are two of the easiest items to check,  because they can both be  verified with an institution directly, not necessarily with a specific individual.

Legal Implications and Common Myths

A company should ask your permission before it contacts your references. But  because you’ve provided the names and contact info, you’ve pretty much given permission.  Some companies will require you to sign a release form. Read it carefully. It may authorize the company to contact unnamed references as well, in other words, people not on your “preferred” reference list.

The release form could also authorize the company to conduct a background check to see if you have any criminal or civil legal issues, such as misdemeanor or felony convictions. And the form may permit them to do a credit check to examine your financial background.

One myth about reference checking is that your former employer can provide only your dates of employment, position titles, and salary history. This is not true. Legally, an employer can provide as much information as they want about your tenure there.

Technically, the information provided  in reference checks must be factual. But this doesn’t mean that the person providing the reference can’t give their personal opinion of you — even if that opinion is negative.

Remember too, that one of the purposes of references is to help a prospective employer have the confidence to hire you. If you know that one of your  employers has a  policy to limit what it reports, you need to provide references outside of that employer, someone who can deliver that additional dimension. Let the prospective employer know about the tight-lipped policy so they won’t think that the company has negative input it is withholding.

What to Do About Negative References

Sometimes, you may suspect that a reference is keeping you from getting offers. In this situation, you can hire a company to contact your references and inquire about you. The most well-known of these firms is Allison & Taylor ( You will pay $79-$99 per reference, and will receive a written report.

The company says that approximately 50 percent of all reference checks they conduct uncover negative input from the reference. Once you know what is being said, you can take action, including talking to the reference or even working with an employment attorney to write a cease-and-desist order. It sounds drastic, but negative references can keep you from getting a job offer.

References: Next Steps

After you are hired for a new job, send your references a thank you letter for their role. Maintaining your network should be an ongoing process. Look for opportunities to return the favor. And keep in touch with your references, sharing good news, information, and resources. Don’t wait to communicate with them until you need them for your next job search.

Continue to build the list of recommendations on your LinkedIn profile. In the future, more employment screening will be done by searching online, using Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. By keeping your LinkedIn profile up to date now, and building a bank of recommendations, you’ll improve your chances of landing any job offer in the future.

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.