Ultimately, the choice is yours as far as who should speak on your behalf. However, here are some guidelines to help you figure out who are the best people to approach when searching for references.
1. Generally speaking, your references should include at least one supervisor, a peer, and (if appropriate) a direct report, client, or contact from a partnering organization. Never supply a prospective employer with less than three references.
2. References should attest to—and be able to elaborate upon—the skills you’ve claimed in your interviews. In particular, be sure to supply references who can discuss your reliability, intelligence, adaptability, conscientiousness, productivity, resourcefulness, and ability to handle responsibility.
If you’ve claimed to have a rare and valuable skill, such as mental telepathy or the ability to translate Japanese into Afrikaans, provide at least one reference who can confirm that you do indeed possess this skill.
3. It’s important that the references you supply have worked directly with you and that they know the details of your job duties. You might be surprised to learn how many of your co-workers are unaware of what it is that you do all day!
4. Keep it local. Whenever possible, use references who live and work in close proximity to your prospective employer.
5. It’s critical that you tell your references in advance that you’re looking for work and would like them to supply a reference for you. Tell them what tasks you anticipate the new job will involve, and indicate which of your skills you expect to be relevant.
Do this in a face-to-face conversation or, if that’s not possible, over the phone. Please, for your own sake, do not do this by email unless you’re absolutely certain you can count on this person saying only positive things about you relative to the responsibilities you’ll have in this new position.
Why? Because you’ll miss the opportunity to witness their reaction to your request for help. If you sense any discomfort or hesitation on their part about giving you a reference, we strongly advise that you DO NOT use them. Our experience is that such people’s anxiety is conveyed in their voices and body language, and hiring managers (telepathic beings that they are) pick up on it, probe deeper, and invariably discover unflattering truths.
6. Verify all of the information your references provide for you. Make sure the phone numbers are current, and that their outgoing messages are clear, professional, and distinguishable. Ideally, you’ll want direct phone numbers for each reference. However, if they can only be contacted through a switchboard, make sure their extension is included and valid. The same goes for email addresses; make sure they’re current. Send a ‘thank you’ email to your references; it’s a good way to ensure the address is current, and they’ll certainly appreciate your gratitude!
Why all this double-checking? Because there’s nothing worse than enduring weeks and sometimes months of grueling interviews, only to be rejected at the last minute due to defunct contact information for one of your references. We’ve seen it happen. Despite all the ‘warm fuzzies’ you created in your interview, a busy hiring manager may penalize you for wasting his or her time.
7. Some people, especially colleagues who are still employed at the company where they worked with you, will tell you that they’re sorry but they can’t give you a reference. They’ll cite company policy about having to refer such inquiries to Human Resource representatives, who in turn will only tell callers the dates during which you worked at the company and what your title was when you left.
If this is the case, your references are telling you one of two things, and it’s important that you guess correctly.
- The first option is that they’re reluctant to be questioned because they hold negative opinions about you or your work. Under these circumstances, accept that this person will be (at best) an ineffective advocate for your cause and drop the matter immediately. No amount of education, persuasion, or bribery will change their minds; it’ll only annoy them. Another reason not to persist: companies are routinely sued for wrongful defamation when aggrieved ex-employees learn that a current employee provided negative information about them.
- The second option is that the person fears being overheard and reprimanded by ‘the authorities’ for breaking the ‘never give a reference for an ex-employee’ rule.
If you believe a person in category ‘b’ would provide a positive and persuasive reference, simply ask if the hiring manager can call him or her at home, after hours. If he or she agrees readily, you’re safe. Express your gratitude and ‘sign them up’ (being sure to get their home number and an idea of when they prefer to be called). If, on the other hand, they continue to express reservations, desist immediately, thank them, and look elsewhere.
8. Avoid supplying ‘character’ references who do not have recent, first-hand knowledge of your effectiveness in the kind of job for which you’re applying. They’ll only make the hiring manager wonder why you didn’t suggest someone with more relevant insight into your work.
9. You may be concerned about ‘burning out’ your references—that is, having them receive too many calls from potential employers or clients. Although this is a nice problem to have, it’s still a problem. To solve it:
- Don’t give your references’ contact information to a hiring manager, Human Resources representative, or recruiter unless they ask and you decide you really want the job. (However, do recognize that if it looks like you’re teasing your prospective employer by withholding this information, they’ll assume you aren’t serious about the position and will focus their efforts elsewhere.) And never include your references with a résumé you post to job boards; recruiters will solicit them for business faster and more persistently than you dreamed possible.
- Place limits on how many of your references may be called, and for how long they should be kept on the phone. However, be reasonable about this—three-minute phone calls are hardly sufficient to assess a professional’s qualifications. Most references are willing to devote 5 to 15 minutes of their time to help a current or former colleague.