Career Counseling: How to Develop the Right References

Person in yellow sweater sits at desk with papers and classified ads making phone callsThe job-search process can be a nightmare for the already paranoid among us. Personal information is routinely mailed and blasted out to unknown parties every day; sometimes you send the information, sometimes it’s a recruiter sending the information. You never know who’s asking about you, or even who they might be asking. If you know someone who works for the employer you are targeting, what initially seemed like a connection becomes a potential liability: what if that person says something negative?

That leads to the hair-prickling question that stops all of us mid-celebratory jig in the parking lot when we hear we got an offer pending a background check: they need to check references. What will your references say?

References are a key part of most job applications. A glowing reference can be the difference between getting hired or not even getting a call back, so it’s important to think carefully about who you want answering questions about you that you can’t necessarily predict. Fortunately, many people in the professional world are flattered by requests to serve as references, and most want to be perceived as positive and helpful. Giving a bad reference detracts from that pursuit. From a purely self-serving point of view, it’s often not worth being brutally honest to a contact’s potential employer if it means diminishing one’s own image.

Of course, it helps to line up your references—three to five is standard—and prepare them as best you can. Ideal candidates for references include:

  • Former supervisors
  • Former coworkers
  • Business partners, clients, or customers
  • Colleagues at other companies who collaborated with you in some way
  • Members of professional organizations/committees you work(ed) on
  • Professors (in some cases—for academic jobs, obviously, but this can work for students looking for work for the first time as well)
  • Academic advisers—if you are a student looking for a job for the first time and you regularly check in with your adviser and the two of you have a good relationship

6 Tips for Developing Professional References

  1. Ask first: Always ask a prospective reference if they would be willing to provide a strong recommendation for you to another employer. If you detect any hesitation, move on to someone else. Don’t take it personally. Some people just don’t feel comfortable giving references. Also, the person in question may not feel they know enough about you as a professional to provide a credible reference. Any lack of enthusiasm from a potential reference is a sign you should try someone else.
  2. Avoid friends and family: Though they surely have great things to say about you, friends and family members are generally not good professional references unless they have had a direct business relationship with you. And even then, a potential employer may look at them more as a character reference than one who can objectively assess your skills. The latter type of reference tends to be more valuable than the former.
  3. Be careful with current coworkers: Because of liability concerns, some employers do not allow managers, supervisors, or even employees to provide references for fellow employees. But people are often willing to look past those policies and provide a reference anyway, as long as they have developed a strong relationship with the person and know what they have to say is positive. If keeping your search confidential is a priority or you’re worried how your current employer would react to news of you looking to leave, make sure you trust any coworkers you do ask and let them know about any workplace-related concerns you have.
  4. Lose the letters: If possible, avoid letters of recommendation in favor of basic contact information in the form of name, current title and employer, phone number, and professional email address. Potential employers recognize that letters of recommendation tend to be carefully crafted to project a certain image, and many recruiters prefer to talk to someone who can speak candidly and off-the-cuff about your strengths and possible weaknesses. Not providing that opportunity to a potential employer may serve as a red flag that, in a worst-case scenario, removes you from consideration.
  5. Provide some coaching: It may be helpful to provide prospective references with relevant details of the job you are applying for and perhaps previous experiences you would like them to highlight (if they can). Also, if there are any duties you would rather not repeat, you might want to ask them not to play up those skills as much as others.
  6. Follow up and express thanks: Some recruiters might check in with only one reference, while others contact all. Regardless of which references are contacted, be sure to thank all of them when your job search has ended. Staying in periodic contact thereafter can be a good way to nurture the relationship and show that you value it beyond merely what it can do for you. If appropriate, offer to return the favor should they ever need a reference of their own.

While requests for references can seem like a huge piece of the job-search puzzle that is outside your control, it is in fact one where you have a lot of control. You get to choose who speaks about you and, to some extent, shape the conversation in advance. With a little bit of preparation, you have the opportunity to assemble a strong panel of advocates to help you get your dream job.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Amy Armstrong, MS, NCC, MCC, LPC, Career Counseling Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Larry

    November 30th, 2016 at 10:12 AM

    One thing that is becoming more and more difficult though is to give a good and honest reference on someone. You tell a potential employer something bad about them and then there is this fear that this was some kind of privacy violation or they could come back and sue you and say that what you said made them lose out on the job. I have pretty much gone to just giving out specific work dates on people and confirm that they worked for me and that is about all I will divulge unless it is something good. Any thing bad, I amjust leaving it to the next employer to find out about on their own.

  • Cat

    April 15th, 2018 at 2:36 AM

    Larry, just a quick question and please don’t get upset I am simply trying to learn something. If you are asked to be a reference for an employee that you know., why you would give negative remarks to the new HR department and or new manager to be pertaining to this particular individual, do you inform them(the requesting individual) of your thoughts and concerns and your intent to give negative comments?
    If that would be the case why wouldn’t you decline their request and make it be less awkward all the way around?

  • Eunice

    December 2nd, 2016 at 9:01 AM

    This just goes to show that you can never burn any bridges behind you because when you do that there is bound to be something that could always come back to haunt you from your past. People remember the kind of work that you did and how you worked with others. Unless you are just doing your time while you are there employers are always going to remember the kind of job that you did and how well you did your work and was a team player

  • kelvin

    December 3rd, 2016 at 8:35 AM

    I made the mistake of putting some one down once who had less than flattering things to say about me. I had no idea they felt that way. Yeah so obviously ask before you put them on the spot like that.

  • Lila C

    December 5th, 2016 at 10:31 AM

    I will be graduating this semester and have been lucky to already have a couple of job offers. But I know that I still need to cultivate those professional relationships because hopefully this job will eventually take me to bigger and better places.
    I just always want to be ready when or if another opportunity ever presents itself for me.

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