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Strategic References

References are the overlooked secret sauce of the job search. Supporters’ enthusiasm for your work can lead to an offer and reinforce the company’s decision to hire you over another candidate. The art of selecting and coaching references is as important as polishing your resume and practicing for an interview, so show some love for this key aspect of your candidacy!

Choose carefully 

Employers typically ask for 3-5 references and expect that most will be from recent positions. Fortunately, they won’t expect you to give your current manager’s name, since many job seekers are conducting a confidential search. Instead, choose colleagues from your current job who can vouch for your work, such as team project members, collaborators from another department, direct reports, and possibly clients. If possible, use someone who is in a more senior position, rather than a lateral co-worker. 

When reaching out to potential references, ask if they feel comfortable giving a reference to ensure they will be enthusiastic and effective. For recent graduates, academic references are fine, but work references should also be included. Those who have taken a significant career break can use references from volunteer work. 

Employers with a “no references” policy present a challenge; they will only have human resources verify job titles and dates. If you have a reference that no longer works for that company, they may be willing to help. 

Lastly, consider growing the recommendations section of your LinkedIn profile so that employers see a variety of positive comments about you. While these don’t carry the weight of a reference, they are great for boosting your reputation and brand. 

Provide a reference list

Create a list of references to provide the hiring company, formatted to match the style and font of your resume. Provide each reference’s name, current job title and employer, relationship, contact information, as well as any guidelines  for how and when they prefer to be contacted. For employers that don’t offer references, instead provide the contact information for the respective human resources department. Consider tailoring the list for particular jobs and keep track of the modified lists.

Make the most of each reference

Have a brief conversation with your potential advocates and ask if they are willing to serve as a reference. If they end up giving several references within a shorter timeframe, check in periodically to confirm they are still okay with the frequency. 

If you anticipate that they will be contacted, always inform them in advance. This is a strategic moment for coaching your references about the details of the job, required skills, and to ask them to emphasize certain qualifications. Savvy job seekers give references a summary sheet to highlight relevant accomplishments and a copy of their resume; don’t assume that they remember your accomplishments. 

Lastly, when you know that a reference has been contacted, show your appreciation and say thanks with a call, email or card, regardless of whether you received a job offer. Maintaining these relationships and being in touch with your supporters can boost your confidence during the hiring process. 

When you’ve had difficulties in a past job

If you and your manager did not have a positive relationship, if there were performance issues, or if you were terminated from the position, it can be difficult to arrange for a reference. In cases where the manager and employee mutually recognize there was not a good fit, the manager may still be willing to give a reference. It’s in your best interest to have a conversation and assess whether they will give a positive reference. If there is hesitancy, you can seek out other references from that employer. 

Employers typically seek references from more recent positions and may ask why you don’t have a reference from that experience—be prepared to give a brief reason for not having a reference. In some cases, there may have been changes and turnover, so you can say that the manager did not work with you for very long or that you had a short tenure overall with the company. Know that a manager who has since left the company can still be a reference.

Remember that your references are your personal cheerleaders and want to help you succeed. Identify and maintain these relationships for mutual benefit and career success.

Michele Rapp is the Associate Director of Alumni Career Strategy at Alumni Relations.