References have the potential to make or break your job search. And, they are a required component of any proper recruitment and selection process. When asked by a prospective employer, “do you have references we can contact?” it is crucial to have a list ready to deliver to keep the momentum going.
Creating a Reference List
So, how do you create a references list that seals the deal? When choosing and preparing your references, consider the following tips shared by Judy Whelehan, AP Professionals of Rochester, Senior Recruitment Specialist:
With over 30 years of staffing industry experience, I am often asked my advice on searching for new employment. What are the first steps? Preparing to explore a new career opportunity starts with creating you references list.
References provide a testimony to your skills and work habits. Whether you are a new graduate entering the workforce or an individual making a career change, you should ask yourself, “who do I choose,” “how do I ask someone,” “do I use personal or professional references,” and “how many references should I have?”
These questions are the elements that will help you develop your reference list. Once you have answered these questions, you are ready to get started.
The first question you will want to ask yourself is who to choose. But, who do prospective employers want to speak with? How many people will they need to talk to?
Consider asking individuals who know your strengths. Who can verify the most critical skills and attributes that are most important for success in the job you are applying to?
Prospective employers will want to speak to individuals who can provide first-hand testimony for your professional work habits. So, the best references are always recent supervisors, however coworkers you worked with very closely with are also a great option.
How many references should you provide? Employers expect a minimum of two professional references. So, you should have three listed, in case one cannot be reached.
Professional vs. Personal
Personal references do not substitute professional references. You should treat these two items separately. When an employer asks for references, they are asking for professional individuals who worked directly with you, for you, or who you worked directly for.
A professional reference is one that can attest to your qualifications for a job. Examples of a professional reference include a former or current employer, manager, supervisor, colleague, client, or vendor.
A personal reference will provide information regarding your integrity and personal attributes. Personal references may be helpful at times, but don’t be tempted to submit a personal reference as a substitute when the job listing or interviewer specifically requires a professional reference.
A personal reference cannot speak to your integrity and personal attributes at work. Your habits and personality may be slightly or drastically different at work vs at home. Only a professional reference can speak first-hand of how you are as an employee.
If you are a recent graduate with limited work experience, you may request a professional reference from professors, coaches, and advisors.
Professors can speak to your study habits, timeliness with completing projects and assignments, and character in class. All of this is transferable to a professional work environment. Coaches can speak to your teamwork skills and reliability, while advisors can elaborate on your strengths and growth.
Always ask if you can list someone as a professional reference, and do not list them unless you get consent. Please re-read this sentence again. Do not skip this step!
When asking for a reference, always provide the opportunity to decline. While most are happy to help colleagues with references and recommendations, there may be circumstances unknown to you preventing them from doing so. And, even if all of your references are happy to be on your list, it’s a good idea to provide a heads-up that someone may be reaching out to ask about you.
When an employer calls, you do not want your reference to be caught off guard. An unprepared reference may not be able to recall and provide the best details about your skills and experience. Potential employers will want (and anticipate that) you to take this common courtesy.
Take the opportunity to share information on the job (or jobs) you are applying for. Offer to provide an updated copy of your resume, which includes past and present skills. You can get a feel for what their response will be in matching up your skills with key points on the position. Remind them about you, your skills, and your accomplishments – especially if it has been a while since you worked together.
If you are not already, connect with them on LinkedIn. But, know that these do not take the place of a reference list.
Written recommendations from coworkers and supervisors can even be posted on your LinkedIn profile.
Acting as a reference takes time. A reference must be available for a detailed phone conversation and will be asked to recall pertinent information. Offers are often contingent upon the successful completion of positive references.
Add a nice touch, and send thank you notes to your references. Let them know you appreciate their assistance. And don’t forget, keep them informed of any changes in employment, once attained.
Regardless of the outcome of your search, be sure to thank each reference for their time and effort.
So, you have your references selected and you asked for and received their consent. Now you are ready to create your list!
Professional references should be listed on a separate page from your resume. In fact, treat your professional reference list as a completely separate item from your resume. Remove “references will be furnished upon request” from your resume, and do not provide references automatically with your resume.
Depending on the employer, references can be requested at any stage of the interview process. Usually, prospective employers will request references if they have further interest after a first interview. They may also be requested as part of an employment application.
At a minimum, your reference list should include your name and the following information: your reference’s first and last name and title, the company where you worked together, their contact information (phone number and email address), your dates of employment, and your title while employed.
Additional information to consider providing includes their relationship to you at that company (i.e. did they directly supervise you), and their current company if it is different from where they worked with you.
Personal references can be listed in a similar format on a separate page, should the employer request them as well. Letters of recommendation should be submitted when the employer requests them.
As with all communication with a potential employer – from cover letters to thank you notes – your list of references should be formatted professionally, be easy to read and understand, and be free of any typos or errors in grammar.
Now, what are your references going to say? While you cannot ultimately control what your references say about you, a little prep work upfront can remind them of your highlight reel. Also during this call, you can get a feel for if they will provide positive information about you.
When you ask your contact to be a reference, it is wise to get an idea of how they would respond to work related questions. Were they pleased with your work? Would they recommend any areas of improvement?
If you are requested to provide a reference from your last employer, and you are worried that you will receive a negative reference, use a supervisor or coworker who will vouch for you positively. You may be able to offset a negative reference from an employer with a positive one from a different professional connection.
Things to Remember
Remember a few key things when caring for your professional reference list:
Stay in touch with your references. If you use them at a later date, recall them for permission
This cannot be reiterated enough. Sure, you asked them to provide a reference…five years ago. Even if it was one year prior, they may be caught off guard. To ensure your references leave the best impression, be sure they know they remain listed and are up to speed on your job search status.
Update your references periodically based on new employers and new responsibilities. Your references will grow with time and experience.
Yes, your manager from three companies and five jobs ago will provide you a glowing recommendation. But, they likely are not able to provide a current testimony to your skills and work habits. While they may be a good option for your second or third reference, prospective employers will want to speak with someone who worked with you most recently.
On that note, candidates commonly ask us, “do I need to provide my current supervisor as a reference?” We take the confidentiality of every job search very seriously. We would never want to jeopardize your current employment situation. Contacting your current employer could certainly do that, unless they were aware of your search.
Of course, it is possible that you have worked at one company for your entire career. It can be difficult to create a list of professional references that won’t jeopardize your current situation. In these cases, talk to your prospective employer about your concerns and ask about alternative solutions.