References can make or break your chances of getting a job offer.
Make sure your references are all good! One lukewarm reference will sow seeds of doubt in an employer’s mind. It’s possible that with 2 other enthusiastic references, you could get an offer. One negative reference? Consider the job someone else’s.
Get prepared early.
When you begin your job search, collect at least 3 references, people you know will give you a great recommendation. It’s far better to have the references in hand well before a potential employer asks for a list, because you don’t want to have to scramble at the last minute and perhaps settle for a so-so reference.
Preferably, your references are former supervisors and close colleagues – people who know your work well. If you have a lengthy work history, I recommend identifying two supervisors and one close colleague. If you’re relatively new to the work world, you can list a former professor and a supervisor from a summer job or internship, plus a current colleague. At more senior levels, it’s great to have four or more potential references. Then you can include current colleagues from other companies.
How to make sure your reference list is in top shape.
1) Ask each potential reference if they are willing to serve as such.
Nothing is worse than someone being surprised by a call from a recruiter. Here’s why: It’s presumptuous on your part to assume they are willing to be positive about you or give a reference at all. What if they aren’t allowed to give references? Recruiters know if someone is surprised, and will immediately give you major demerits for behaving unprofessionally. In addition, the person should have a chance to think about what they might say about you.
2) Reconnect with references every time you seek a job even if they’ve agreed to help you in the past.
Alert them that someone will be calling to get a reference from her so they are aware and can start thinking of what to say. You can chat a bit about the position and why you want it, subtly emphasizing the things you want them to say. You also can tell them you want to make sure you are giving the correct contact information. They will appreciate knowing a little about the position and company you’re interviewing with, and you never know if they know someone there. A client recently talked to someone about a position she was actively pursuing and it turned out he knew the boss very well. He urged that person to “run, don’t walk” to hire my client, and she got the offer – and accepted the job in part because she trusted her reference’s judgment about the job and employer being a “right fit” for her.
3) Find out what they might say about you, and suggest what the reference could say.
People who worked with you a while ago will have vaguer memories of you than more recent bosses. And they will not know how you have grown and increased your abilities. So have a brief conversation about yourself. Talk about your previous work and how it is similar to this new position, or uses skills you developed when working with the reference. Ask them what they think are your strengths, and where they might have wished you to be stronger. This gives you a chance to say how you’ve further strengthened your abilities and learned from the past. If the reference seems to be lukewarm about you, cross them off your list.
4) Put your reference list in writing.
Once you’ve finalized your group of references, make a Word document that lists each reference by name, gives their current title and employer (if they are working), identifies the nature of your relationship and length of time the person knows you (e.g. direct supervisor at XYZ Company for 4 years), and provides current contact information (preferably a telephone number). If you save it on your hard drive, you can e-mail it or print it out as needed, as well as update it. This way, your list is ready to go when your next employer asks for it.
Use LinkedIn recommendations to augment your references.
LinkedIn recommendations are essentially “soft references.” They are not taken too seriously by potential employers once you are in the running, yet they can help you get in the running for a job. Have at least 3 recommendations that speak to your skills, work product, work ethic, and impact on the company and colleagues. I say “one is an accident, two is a coincidence and three is a pattern.” If 3 people are willing to publicly state their opinion of you, that makes a positive impression on recruiters.
NOTE: Do not confuse recommendations with endorsements. Endorsements mean little, except to show that you have a lot of people willing to click a box for you and perhaps to highlight the best skills you possess.
Once you have your references lined up in this way, you can feel confident that you have a team on your side. And that will give you confidence as you go through the job search and interview process.