You know you have successfully passed the interview stage when the employer finally asks for references. It’s an exciting moment. And it’s a little frightening, as well, because at this point you no longer have influence over the job application; you are dependent on other people being available, willing and able to talk about you convincingly.
Employers’ expectations regarding references aren’t necessarily consistent (just like every other aspect of the hiring process). Sometimes, employers ask for them at the end of a good interview, sometimes they call for the reference list after the interview, and other times they don’t want them at all. Sometimes, employers ask for references up front, in the job posting.
So what is a job seeker to do?
Get your reference list together ASAP.
Be proactive. Don’t wait for the last minute to be asked for your list of references. Identify, contact and gather your references as soon as you begin your job search. Have them ready when you are preparing resumes and cover letters. With today’s ease of access to the Internet, it is much easier and acceptable for you to use references from your former places of employment, even if they are in other countries or if they are no longer employed at that company. Employers prefer to use references that they can speak to, but many will check references all over the world using email, if necessary.
Start by identifying who might be your best reference.
Who do you know who could be a good reference? One important criteria is that the more senior they are in the company, the better it is for you. But, they need to know you well enough to be able to talk about you in detail. Your previous boss, colleagues, or even customers/clients are acceptable options. If in your job you dealt with staff in other companies, they may also be able to speak well about your customer service, organizational or other skills. Start out by making a list of all the people who supervised you in the last 5 years. It’s best to have a list of 3-5 people — most employers want 3 references, but it’s a good idea to have a couple of back up names, in case someone isn’t available when you need them.
Consider the following criteria:
Is your reference:
- available to talk about you to an employer?
- willing to be a reference?
- familiar enough with your work to be able to speak about you in detail?
- able to represent you well?
- easy to reach?
Reach out to people in your network.
Email or call the people you chose as potential references. Ask them if they are available and willing to take on this role. It’s a big responsibility and not everyone is willing. Explain to them that they do not have to write you a letter – all that is needed is to be available by phone and email.
There will be times when asking for a letter is a better option, for example, if the person providing the reference is about to retire, or simply doesn’t want to/can’t be in touch in the future. If a letter is required, offer to write the letter, or at least provide an outline for it, to help the referrer. Email it to them and let them edit, print and sign it (preferably on a company letterhead). If they agree, thank them, maybe even take them out for a cup of coffee to tell them a bit about what you need them to say. Offer your resume, so that they have the information they might need to speak about you to a potential employer.
Create the reference list.
The reference list should be neatly displayed on a Word/PDF document. It should be on a letterhead that includes your name and contact details (use the one that your resume and cover letter are on).
- Reference’s full name
- Reference’s job title and relationship to you (e.g. “former supervisor”)
- Their company name (where they worked with you)
- The company address
- Their email address and telephone number
- Before offering your reference list to an employer, always double-check that the references are still available and willing to provide you with a glowing reference.
- Keep in mind that the information on your reference list is private, so don’t provide the list to potential employers until they have met with you and you are sure that you want them to contact your references.
- Always bring the reference list to the interview to present to the employer. But only provide it the interviewer asks for it.
- After giving the reference list to the potential employer, always make sure that you inform your references that you have given their names; give them a heads up that they might be contacted and tell them about the nature of the job opportunity and the name of the employee who will be calling.
- Stay in touch with your references even when you don’t have a job interview. Remember, networking is a worthwhile activity even when you are working. You never know when you will suddenly need to restart your job search. Sometimes, they may leave the company where you worked, so keep in touch. Treat your references like gold: stay in touch, send holiday cards and show appreciation. LinkedIn is a great solution to staying in touch easily.
- Speak to your references to discuss how they might answer the more challenging questions interviewers might ask, such as discussing your weaknesses or giving the reasons for your departure from that job. Although this is difficult, try to ensure that they will focus on the positive things about you.
- Ask your references to contact you after they have been called by the potential employer to provide you with feedback. Whether or not the employer called the reference and what was discussed will give you a good clue about whether you are being seriously considered for the job.