Job Search Series – References Upon Request

“A good reference can seal the deal for a candidate.”
~ Shawn VanDerziel,
Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief of Staff at Chicago’s Field Museum (Renowned U.S. natural history museum and home base of the celebrated archaeologist / adventurer of the Indiana Jones movies) 

A key element of the job search is one’s references; yet candidates often fail to give this component the attention it deserves. Neglecting to research, update and nurture your references can trip you up just as you’re about to cross the finish line.

Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot, and one day you picked up your phone to find someone on the other end requesting a reference for someone with whom you‘ve have not been in touch for some time. First, you’ve been caught off-guard and, second, you might not have a clear recollection of this particular person. Wouldn’t it have been helpful if the person who provided your name as a reference had contacted you beforehand to ask if you’d be willing to give him a recommendation, and then gave you a heads up when an employer might contact you? As you are stumbling through your comments about the candidate in question, the hiring manager on the other end of the phone is becoming less impressed and it’s possible that this is the end of the line for the applicant at that company. Worse yet, suppose you cannot give the person a good, let alone great reference?

Don’t let that happen to you, the job candidate. Take the time to line up your references solidly and increase your chances of success. Let’s take a look at the process.

How Many References Do You Need?

You should have a minimum of three business and two personal – or character – references ready to go to bat for you at the drop of a hat. But don’t stop there; if possible, line up additional solid and strong business references just in case one or more of your primary ones aren’t available when needed. Moreover, depending on the length of your work history, the industry, company and position a prospective employer might request additional references. Then there are vacations, illnesses, leaves of absence, personal emergencies and the like that could prevent someone from being available when you need his or her reference. Thus, it’s the savvy professional who is prepared with a sufficient number of high-quality references from which to choose.

Who Should You Select As Your References?

  • Business references should be recent managers to whom you have reported or have supervised your work. These are the people who are in the best position to judge your work, skills, work ethic, attitude, integrity, dependability and overall professionalism. They should also be managers with whom you’ve an excellent working relationship and who would be enthusiastic about recommending you. You don’t want lukewarm references – you want the kind of heart-thumping references that will make people be excited to hire you! You may also include a client or two with whom you have had an especially outstanding relationship; such references are essential for entrepreneurs who are seeking to make the transition to employment.
  • Personal, or character, references may include neighbors, teachers, professors, community leaders, officials at volunteer organizations and others who have known you well, preferably for a number of years rather than months – and will be enthusiastic about providing a sterling reference for you. Personal references should not include immediate family members or relatives.

Should You List Your Current Boss or Company?

The only reasons to list your current boss as a reference is if you’ve already given notice or have been laid off in a downsizing situation, have an excellent relationship with him or her, and have confirmed that a reference is possible and not against company policy. More likely, however, you will be conducting a job search before you have given notice; for that reason most job seekers do not list their current manager and recruiters and prospective employers do not expect to contact them. Once you have accepted a job offer your potential employer can be expected to verify your employment history during the background check.

How Do You Establish Your References?

Begin by making a list of your top business and personal/character references. You should know them well enough to proceed to contact the most appropriate by speaking with each one face-to-face, by phone or via email. Ask if you may use them for  references in your current job search and tell them what kind of job you are seeking. If appropriate and you are comfortable in doing so, ask them to let you know if they come across any promising job postings. If they agree to give you a reference, follow it up with a thank-you note or letter via email or snail mail on your personal stationery, depending on the level of formality of your relationship.

How Do You Maintain and Ensure Your References?

Stay in touch with your references and never take them for granted! Even if you don’t use a reference immediately, send an occasional email or call from time to time and connect on LinkedIn. Over time, you’ll find that you need to update your references, delete some old ones and add some new ones. Advise your references when you begin a job hunt to alert them to the possibility of inquiries about you. Often that’s when you’ll discover that some references are no longer viable and you have to update your list!

What’s Next After You Provide Your List of References Upon Request?

You should immediately contact your references to advise each one to expect a possible inquiry from the company. Your potential employer might not contact every one of your references; nevertheless all must be alerted to the possibility. Failure to alert your references could result in a delays and embarrassment. Your references will appreciate the heads up and be all that more willing and able to sing your praises when contacted.

Until next time,


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