Are Your References Failing You? Or Are You Failing Your References? – Part 1

by Claire Nelligan

Good references are essential to landing a new job, yet according to author Martin Yate, few candidates realize that a primary reason they don’t get a job offer is because their references failed them. Ask yourself: are your references failing you, or are you failing your references?  Your journey as a job seeker can be riddled with obstacles, detours and surprises. References are the only part of the journey over which you have a good deal of control. Get your references in order now. Don’t wait until your next interview!


Whom Are You Asking?

References can come from a wide variety of people, including former or current:

  • Supervisors, managers, or directors
  • Colleagues, peers, or subordinates
  • Internal or external customers, clients, suppliers, or vendors
  • Military service members you worked with or reported to
  • Professors, academic advisors, or mentors
  • Community or religious leaders
  • Volunteer coordinators


Come up with as many potential references as possible and write them down. Do they know your skills? It might be helpful to list the skills that they can speak to next to their names.


It is a good idea to have at least one recent supervisor on your list, especially one who has served as a mentor or assisted with your career advancement. If you don’t have a recent supervisor on your list, be prepared to address this. For example, maybe your company has a “no references” policy. You can explain to a potential employer: “My former company can only confirm beginning and end dates of employment and ending salary. I do have references from former clients and co-workers, and their contact information.”


Choose References Wisely

Now that you have a list of names to choose from, whom should you use? If possible, select people who have seen you in a role similar to – or in the same field as – the one for which you are applying. Give employers a reference they can relate to. A supervisor may relate better to another supervisor; a computer technician may relate better to another computer technician. If you are applying for a management position, a former subordinate on your list may give your potential future employer the insight about you that they need.


Select people who are articulate and can sell the prospective employer on you. Choose references based upon what they know directly about you and your job performance. Do not try to dazzle a potential employer with a reference’s job title. If the CEO doesn’t know your work personally, don’t use him/her for a reference. If you don’t have a good list of references to choose from, invest time now in building a list of references. Consider volunteer work to generate references.


Ask Permission

The much used phrase “May I use you for a reference?” can only elicit a “yes” or “no” response, which can set you and your potential reference up for imminent failure. Asking someone to serve as a reference over the phone or via email is impersonal.  If at all possible, meet with the potential reference face-to-face. Tell them you are looking for work, what kind of work, and why you will succeed in this field.


Ask: “Do you feel you know my work well enough to serve as a reference?”


If they do not know you or your work well enough to serve as a reference, or if they would prefer not to, this gives them the opportunity to exit gracefully. If they are willing to serve as a reference for you, your work has just begun!


Make Your References a Part of the Process

After you have secured your references’ endorsement, (or the endorsement of all of your references) send them a thank you note immediately. Send them a sample copy of your cover letter and résumé. Keep them up to date on your job search efforts. Make your references a part of the process. References can produce job leads, encouragement and support while you are seeking employment. If you have a successful interview, contact your references and let them know about it. Whenever possible, give them the name, title and company of the person who may call them.


Wouldn’t this sound good to a hiring manager checking references: “Lance told me he interviewed with you and that you might call. He is very impressed with ABC Corporation and is excited about the possibilities of working there. He has a strong background in sales and is an excellent fit for this position, I believe. What questions do you have for me?”


Your references can only be as successful as you allow them to be.


Want more information? Read part 2 of this article series  on how to set your references up for success.


This article first appeared in Career Connection, a newsletter of the WorkForce Center System.


Claire Nelligan is an Employment Program Monitor with the State of Minnesota. She is a Global Career Development Facilitator and teaches résumé writing at Normandale Community College.


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