9 Guidelines for Working with Your Professional References

by Robyn Winters, Career Strategist

February 14, 2017

ReferencesProfessional references can be among your most valuable asset, because they can be the difference between your landing a job – or not. A reference can become a positive asset in your job search, shaping the perception of you and your work to prospective employers and/or hiring managers.

Providing references can provide insight into how others have perceived working with you – or just knowing you – and may actually help to ‘tip the scales’ in your favor.

Below are 9 best practice guidelines for using references.

1. Ask your references for permission.
It’s important to ask permission of anyone you’re considering for a reference. References don’t want to be surprised by a phone call from a company hiring manager, so be sure to place your references on alert. Also, ask references how they would prefer to be contacted (e.g., cell phone, e-mail). If you haven’t spoken to the reference in a while, be sure to re-confirm all of their contact information (including spelling).

2. You will need 3-5 professional references.
The rule of thumb is to have 2-3 references (e.g., people from your business life) and 1-2 personal references (e.g., people who were college instructors, clergy, and “friends” who are also professionals). Do not use a family member – ever.

3. Coach your references.
Once your job search is underway, you will need to let your references know the types of work or positions that you’re pursuing, and ask them to consider ways in which they can support your candidacy with specific stories and examples.

After your “final” interview, and when a hiring company has indicated that it is ready to contact your references, be sure to send the references a job description in advance, and fill them in on any relevant details and what they might be asked.

References might be asked about your strengths, weaknesses, work style, work ethic, projects you’ve teamed on, a business objective you achieved, or even your personality. You need to clarify with the reference what his/her responses would be.

4. Cover these areas with each of your professional references prior to your interview with the prospective hiring company.
Below is a list of areas that you and your references need to cover prior to your interview with the hiring company:

Credibility. How the person knows you: nature of relationship/length of time.

Strengths, Skills, Abilities. A description of your skills and a story that illustrates them.

Accomplishments. What you did well and the contributions you made for your company during your tenure that they can attest to.

Personal traits. Positive qualities that relate to the job you’re applying for. How you are a team player; your work style; your ethics, and your work values.

Areas needing development/weaknesses. It’s important that references can attest to an area that is not perceived as a weakness, or an area that you’ve improved upon.

Reason for leaving. This is the “official story” of your departure from the company where you worked together; keep it simple, direct, positive and plausible.

It is best to handle these topics in person. If that cannot be arranged, then a phone call would be second best, so that you can continue your relationship with your reference on a positive note. You don’t necessarily need to contact your references about each job interview unless it has been a long time since you were in touch, or if there is something special or different about a particular job.

5. Select business professionals.
Your professional references (as opposed to personal ones) should be people with whom you have worked with in the past, who may still be working, and who can speak about you in well-articulated language. Once they have information about the position you’re seeking and the company where you’d work, they need be able to express your value to a prospective employer and the strengths and character that you’ll bring to the job.

6. If possible, meet with references in person.
This will give you the opportunity to update them on your job search and to discuss details about the job and company. It also provides you with the additional opportunity to maintain your current relationship and network.

7. Select people who can provide different perspectives about your work and achievements.
Providing different perspectives about you can be of great value. Select people who’ve worked with you on projects, on teams, who have supervised you, who were colleagues, or people who know about your work as an individual contributor. Also vary the type of projects you’ve worked on together so that a prospective employer can get a fuller picture of your skills, background, and cultural fit.

8. Consider all potential references.
This list can include former managers, project leaders, team members, colleagues, customers, vendors/suppliers, business associates, and direct reports.

9. Send a thank-you note after a professional reference has notified you that s/he has been contacted.
It’s important to let references know how their input was an essential part of your process. When you learn the outcome of your interview, you can share that as well. And, as a final note, be sure to offer to return the favor in the future.

Download the TBJL Reference List Template and find other valuable career transition information in our Resource Library.

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