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Getting Good Job References

It may seem like a no-brainer, but providing a potential employer with an outstanding reference can be the competitive edge that lands you a bonafide job offer. Make no mistake, nearly every company checks job references. In fact, an overwhelming number of human resource professionals—nearly 96 percent—report that they always checks references. So why do so many job seekers fail to secure the references that can set them apart? Many simply fail to plan ahead or be prepared. Every individual should maintain a list of references throughout their career—trusted “go-to” bosses, mentors, colleagues, industry contacts, educators and peers who are willing and able to clearly articulate the meaningful ways you excel in your profession.

References are professional endorsements. They let hiring managers know about the ways you excel in your work, your leadership qualities, initiative and problem-solving skills, how well you collaborate with co-workers, clients and vendors. Most importantly, they let prospective employers know you bring value to an organization.

Needless to say, who you choose to serve as a reference is very important. How do you know who will endorse you enthusiastically and without reservation? How do you ask them if they’re willing to recommend you—either through a letter of reference or phone interview? These are issues that should be worked out well ahead of actually needing a reference. Don’t wait until you are asked for references by a hiring or HR manager and have to make a flurry of last-minute phone calls to find someone who can respond immediately.

Prepare your references now. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Who should you ask for a reference?

Most companies want you to provide business and professional references. Former bosses, co-workers, customers and vendors are all good choices. In fact, most prospective employers require the majority of your references come from this category. However, if you’ve just graduated (or just beginning your career or job hunt), it’s perfectly acceptable to use college professors or other personal references, such a member of a professional or collegiate organization.

Only choose people who you’ve “wowed” as a reference. Once you’ve decided who’d you like to be a reference, make sure you ask their permission in advance. You don’t want the person you’ve chosen to be caught off guard or put on the spot by with an HR manager calling them out of the blue.

Also, it’s a good idea to give your references a heads up when you know a particular company is seriously interested in you and may be contacting them. Give them a brief overview of the position you are pursuing and a short list of reasons why you are an ideal fit so they can reinforce your relevant expertise, skills and qualities with the individual vetting your references.

Who should you avoid asking for a reference?

Don’t ask for a reference from anyone who has been even slightly critical of your work or given you a mediocre review in the past. Doing so is a risk you shouldn’t take while searching for a new job. In addition, if someone really hasn’t known you long enough to talk about you knowledgeably, do not choose them as a reference. Similarly, family members should never be given as references because their opinions about you are biased, and using them only makes you look unprofessional.

How should you ask for a reference?

Use common sense when selecting a person and asking them for a reference. Be polite, and acknowledge the fact that they are helping you in an important way. People are usually receptive and flattered that you value their opinion and think of them highly. If they hesitate, for any reason, or don’t seem receptive, don’t push. Simply thank them for their consideration and move on to another possible reference.

Keep these tips in mind as you prepare your list of references well in advance of needing it. Keep your reference list current and ready to go. Remember, the hiring process involves more than interviewing. Many candidates have lost an expected job offer simply because the quality of their reference list wasn’t as strong as it could have been. Put time and thought into who you ask to serve as a reference, and make necessary adjustments to your list as your career progresses.