Everything You Need to Know About Job References

References might seem like a formality, but to hiring managers they’re invaluable. In fact, a professional reference can make or break your ability to land a job, says Mary Olson-Menzel, president of MVP Executive Search and Development. An Addison Group survey found that professional references are nearly as important to hiring managers as a resume. So what happens when you’re not sure where you stand with the very people who hold the future of your job search in their hands?

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“It’s hard to recover from a bad job reference,” Olson-Menzel says, but it’s also easy to prevent one. It’s just a matter of communicating with your references thorough the job search process. From picking the right people to prepping them and following up afterwards, here’s how to ensure your references always put you in the best light when hiring managers call.

Assemble an A-Team
Danielle Beauparlant Moser, managing partner at Blended Learning Team LLC and coauthor of Focus: Creating Career & Brand Clarity, recommends developing a list of about eight potential references who can speak to your work performance and leadership skills from different perspectives within an organization — as a peer, direct report, supervisor, and client. (Depending on the position you’re applying for, you will need references who can speak to your role in the trenches versus your role as a leader.) The requirements of the position will dictate which of your references to use, she says — and don’t wait until you’re applying for a new job to cultivate these relationships.

Use references who can give an accurate picture of who you currently are as a professional. You might have a great reference from a job you held 10 years ago, but that person may not be best to help you land a senior-level position, says Moser. “Someone can think you are fabulous but be a lousy reference because they can make you sound too junior” for the role you’re applying for, she says. Similarly, she says, don’t use an inarticulate reference or someone who’s known for being a wild card in a conversation.

It’s essential that your references validate what you’ve been saying in the job interviews. “You want to provide references who see you doing things similar to the position you are applying for,” Olson-Menzel says.

Do Some Prep Work
Giving out a reference’s name without first asking permission breaks the cardinal rule of references, Olson-Menzel says. Before using anyone as a reference, she recommends either meeting with them in person or, at the very least, talking on the phone. Tell them that you’re interviewing for a new position and would like to discuss the possibility of using them as reference. Even if you’ve used this person as a reference before, it’s a good idea to reconfirm that they’re still comfortable with it. “You want to know up front that they’re going to be presenting a good faith effort on your behalf,” she says.

Give your reference a copy of your current resume and tell them what skills and achievements you’d like them to highlight, says Vicki Salemi, a career expert for Monster. Make sure you brief them about the job you’ve applied for, too.

If you’re applying for a senior position and it’s been a few years since you’ve worked together, bring your reference up to speed about what you do at your current position, says Jennifer Wright, managing director of the human resources and administration team at HireStrategy. Be specific, she says, and tell them: “Here’s what I’ve been doing at my current job. Here’s how I’ve enhanced my skills since we worked together.”

If you’re uncomfortable having this type of conversation with a potential reference, then they’re probably not the right one for you.

Follow Up
When asking someone to be your reference, also ask how comfortable they are with sharing how the reference-check conversation went, Moser suggests. Tell your reference that knowing what questions were asked will help you best position yourself in a negotiation or alert you to any potential concerns the employer might have. For example, if your potential new boss is concerned about your ability to delegate, they will ask your references about your delegation skills four different ways. If you know this, then you can reinforce your delegation abilities in your next conversation with the potential employer.

Coddle your references and treat them as part of the interview process, Salemi says. The reference they provide could be one of the reasons you land the job, so send them a handwritten thank-you note afterwards and offer to take them to coffee or lunch.

Beware of Hidden References
The best argument for not burning bridges and being the kind of coworker people remember fondly? References you didn’t list. Hiring managers often use LinkedIn to see if they know anyone who worked at a company the same time you did. Since the hiring manager has a personal relationship with the person they are calling, these discussions tend to be incredibly frank, Moser says.

Olson-Menzel agrees that these casual, off-the-record reference checks provide candid information about job applicants. “We seldom get a bad reference from someone,” she says, “unless it’s a behind-the-scenes reference.”

Refute a Bad Reference
Although it’s hard to recover from a bad reference, there are ways to mitigate the effects, especially if you’re still in touch with the potential employer. It might be tricky to pinpoint which of your references didn’t go to bat for you, but often you can get a sense of what might have gone wrong by following up with each one.

If one of your references mentions that they didn’t talk you up as well as they could have, address the issue directly and immediately with the potential employer, Salemi says, and don’t wait for human resources to bring it up. Acknowledge what your reference said about you and your performance, and give a current example of something that would completely counter what your reference said about you. For instance, if your reference said you didn’t know how to use Excel effectively, you can counter by saying you’ve taken a class in Excel and you use it every day in your current job. Ideally, this conversation needs to happen either face-to-face or over the phone, Salemi says. You don’t want to explain this in an email.

Another option is to provide an additional reference to counter what the other one said, Olson-Menzel says. But if you do all your work up front — vetting, prepping, and selecting the right references for the job — this shouldn’t happen.

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