7+ Tips to Help Your References Make You Shine

Keith R. Sbiral, Principal, Apochromatik

This week we turn to something that is often a stumbling block for those currently searching for a new job: references.

We have all worked in the office environment where the reference check should actually be called a “reference check” because it is a perfunctory approach that results in little or no information regarding the quality of a candidate.  On the flip side, there are professional organizations that have a list of deeply probing questions that really get to the heart of a candidate’s “fit” for the job, not just qualifications.

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The important thing for you as the applicant is that in EITHER SITUATION you have a great deal of control over what the resulting reference call is able to yield for your candidacy.  If the former situation exists, a well versed reference can drive the conversation and provide what amounts to the equivalent of an additional interview or advertisement of your skills.  If you are looking at the latter situation, your reference needs to be prepared to not only answer basic questions but truly know you as the candidate for the job you are applying.  I just chaired a board meeting for a fellowship position where the quality and preparation of the references made all the difference in the selection process.  When a selection process is extremely competitive, every aspect of the selection counts.

So you know the references are important.  What you may not know is that many candidates treat references as an afterthought.  Putting together a high quality reference list can result in a significant jump ahead in your candidacy for that job you worked so hard to get.  For more on that, see our blog post 3 Steps to a Highly Effective Reference List.  Here are some points to make sure your references propel you across the finish line.

  • Never list a reference without making sure that they will provide a positive reference.  This seems elementary, but as someone who has completed hundreds of reference calls I am amazed at how many times I hear, “oh they aren’t working out at XYZ company either?”  That and similar comments can end your candidacy immediately.
  • Meet with your reference often enough that they truly know you.  The strongest reference calls, and those that have resulted in hiring decisions, are those where the reference is truly excited about you as a person.  Your reference should truly know you in the professional setting and serve as your advocate.  Take the initiative to prepare your reference.  Select a reference that will advocate for you in the situation noted above where the person making the call isn’t asking probing questions.
  • Prepare your reference.  Provide your resume, application materials, a description of the job you are applying for, and why you believe this is a good fit.  Make sure you provide a few points that you want that reference to cover.  
  • Additional preparation for them is not insulting, it just indicates you care deeply about the potential position and the hiring process.  Serving as a positive reference is an honor for most people, but it also isn’t the number one item on their list on any particular day.  So make sure you make their job as easy as possible.
  • Have three to five references ready if you are early in your career and five to seven references ready if you are at least ten years into your career.  Hand pick which references you give to each application based on those that you believe will be the best fit.
  • Leverage the reference call as another opportunity to fortify your candidacy.  After your interview if there are items you feel were weak points, missed points, or points in your background that need to be emphasized, reach out to your references and give them the tools they need to help you directly address those points.
  • Your reference can provide feedback to you as well.  After your reference is called, reach out to them again and make sure that you cultivate any information that they were able to learn from the call that could help you fill in questions about what the job is looking for in the successful candidate.  If something arises from these conversations that the organization is looking for but you haven’t covered (and you have directly applicable experience,) reach out to your contact and provide them the additional information.  Also carefully consider any red flags your reference may have noticed in the reference check.

Once you have that job you have been working so hard to get, don’t forget your reference.  Apochromatik’s Amy M. Gardner recently completed a series on networking.  Keep your references in your network.  Send them a thank you note at a minimum, and a small gift if appropriate.  References are crucial members of your network and the closer you are to them, the better off you are.

This blog post is a quick look at references and how they can help you land the job you want.  There is, of course, much more information that can be covered on this topic and job searching in general.  If this is something you are interested in working on, please reach out to me, Keith R. Sbiral, Principal at Apochromatik.  At Apochromatik we can help you bring your career into focus, eliminate distractions, and help you get where you want to be.