Set Your References Up for Success – Part 2

by Claire Nelligan

I once served as a reference for a woman I had worked with closely at my job. I cannot possibly say enough good things about her! She was at the top of her field! Serving as a reference, I failed her miserably. Or did she fail me? I had no idea she planned to use me as a reference. And I did not know she was applying for a job to manage people. As I had never seen her managing subordinates, I couldn’t speak to that skill. No wonder she didn’t get the job. She was a perfect fit, but that wasn’t apparent from the reference I gave!


Help Your Reference Focus

Your references will be asked about some common skills or attributes about you, including:

  • Self-management skills
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Ability to work well with others
  • Leadership skills
  • Productivity and ability to meet deadlines
  • Work ethic

Prepare them for these questions. Do you know what your references will say about you? Ask them!


A Reference Checklist


It will also be helpful to give your reference information about your job search, your skills, and updates on your activities since you last worked with or for them.


Create Your Reference List

To make the most out of your references, make sure they are presented well!


The list of references you give employers should look professional. The paper, font type and size should match that of your résumé and cover letter. List reference’s name, job title (or relationship if it’s not clear from the job title), address, telephone number and email address. You may also add a sentence noting what skills or attributes the individual reference is familiar with.


Here is an example of an appropriately arranged reference:


Example of a Reference


Always have your list of references ready when applying or interviewing for a position.


Do Not Overuse Your References

Employers usually ask for three or four references. Can you come up with six or eight? This will prevent overusing your references. Choose your references based on the skills you want to spotlight for a particular position.


References should be current. Check with them regularly to make sure they haven’t moved of changed telephone numbers or email address. Make it easy for the potential employer to contact your references.



With minimal investment of time and energy you can prepare your references for success. Good luck!


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.


5 thoughts on “Set Your References Up for Success – Part 2

  1. Claire Nelligan August 23, 2012 / 8:10 am

    Excellent, Rachel!
         Serving as reference is an honor and also a bit of work!
        When you do get that call from his potential employer know that if you are not prepared yet to speak on his behalf or if the timing doesn't work for you, you can always ask to schedule a phone meeting at a later time.
         When you do meet, have the job description or job ad and his résumé in front of you. Be ready for questions about his strengths and his weaknesses as well. Talk to him about that to make sure your messages are consistent. Turn weaknesses into stregths!
         Serving as a reference is much like being interviewed. The more you know about the company and how his skills match their needs the more brilliantly and successfully you can speak on his behalf.   


  2. Rachel Vilsack August 23, 2012 / 7:38 am

    Hi Claire,
    I have already put your suggestions to use! A colleague of mine asked if he could use me as a reference. I said yes, and prompted him to alert me to any job he applies to, by sending me a copy of the job description. I told him wanted to go beyond speaking to his skills and experience and mention why they are a good fit to the position – and company – he is applying for.


  3. Claire Nelligan August 22, 2012 / 1:57 pm

    Give it a try Jamie.
    I just served as a reference for a co-worker, yesterday. The hiring manager asked me what I knew about the job that the job seeker (I will call her Mary) was applying for. I was able to tell her that Mary had given me a copy of the job description, her cover letter, her résumé and a leadership summary she had written. "She is very organized," I added. "I read your job description and jotted down a few thoughts on how her skills might serve your organization. May I share those thoughts with you?"
    She received the job offer today. She does have the skills to serve the employer well and a good, well thought out reference can close the deal.
    Thank you for your comment.


  4. Jamie Buss August 22, 2012 / 1:39 pm

    Really great advice that I have not followed. My old thinking was that by not bothering my references, I'm doing them a favor and saving their time. But when I think about what I'm setting them up for, clearly  all this info helps them efficiently provide the reference. It's helpful to a reference for a job candidate to provide all this info, or to suggest "talking points."


  5. Cristine August 17, 2012 / 12:07 pm

    Great advice! 


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