10 Questions to Ask Yourself
When Selecting Professional References

You've applied for a new job, and have successfully completed an interview or two with the company. Now the hiring manager is asking you for a list of references. What do you do? 

After spending over a decade as an executive recruiter, career transition consultant and coach, I find most candidates are unprepared when it comes to references and end up hastily providing the first three former managers or co-workers they can think of. This is a dangerous practice if you want to secure the job you're being considered for. Although companies typically use references to simply confirm a hiring decision they've already made, a poorly selected reference may end your chances at that dream job.

Just as you customize your cover letter and resume for each job, so to should you customize your list of references. Start by asking yourself the following questions about each individual you could provide as a reference:

  1. What will this individual say about me? What's their opinion of me? Might they say something harmful for to my candidacy if pressed to list what my weaknesses are?
  2. Can they speak to my skills and areas of knowledge that are most relevant to the job I'm applying for?
  3. Will they be able to alleviate any concerns that the hiring manager may have about me (i.e. ability to lead a team)?
  4. How well do they remember my performance and will they be able to provide specific examples? The more recently you worked with the reference the better.
  5. What was my working relationship to this individual? References provided by direct managers will usually carry more weight than a peer, subordinate or 1-up manager
  6. Have I asked their permission to provide them as a reference, and do they have the time to provide a full reference?
  7. How often have I used this person as a reference? Will they grow tired of providing references for me?
  8. Do they know a brief summary of the job I've applied for so they can speak to relevant skills?
  9. Will this person corroborate information provided by myself and the other references I'm providing, and will they have something beneficial and unique to add to those other references
  10. Is this person articulate and enthusiastic about me? Avoid providing references that are likely to give only one word answers to questions. You want references who will elaborate and provide more detailed information.
You should list the following 3 pieces of information for each reference you provide.

  • The Basics: their name, current employer and job title
  • Contact Info:  Daytime phone number and e-mail address
  • Relationship: Name of the company you worked at together, their job title at that time and their relationship to you at the time (i.e. manager, supervisor, peer, 1-up manager, client,etc).
Typically, a potential employer will ask you for 2-3 references, but it's great to have some extras as backup incase one of your references can't be reached.

References are typically the final step before a job offer is extended, so be sure not to delay the offer by being unprepared. Take the following steps to ensure a smooth and timely process.

  1. Build your pool of potential references constantly by always performing your best and building strong working relationships with your managers and co-workers; you never know when you'll need them to say nice things about you
  2. Keep in touch with your potential co-workers even after you've stopped working together. Don't lose a great reference simply because you don't have their current contact information (LinkedIn and Facebook make staying connected easy)
  3. Be sure to thank your references for their time and effort. If you show your appreciation, they'll be more likely to provide you with another reference in the future. It's also a good opportunity to update them on the status of the job you've applied for.
  4. Return the favour. While a former manager may not need to use you as a reference, a former peer might.

If you have questions regarding references, resumes, interviewing or job search strategies, let me know. I would be happy to assist you!

Christopher Papps
President | DreamWork Consulting

BONUS TIP: DO NOT include "References available upon request" in your cover letter or on your resume. The employer you've applied to already assumes you can provide references, and so this line only serves to take up space unnecessarily.


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