References are such a powerful tool because you can promote yourself all you want in a cover letter, resume or portfolio, but you have less autonomy over your references. You can't control what your references say about you. However, you can control who you select as a reference. And, it's a crucial choice to make, with serious consequences to your job search.
The references you list is an important choice when you are putting together your job application. One wrong word from a less-than-enthusiastic reference can quickly knock you off an employer's list of candidates.
On the other hand, a strong endorsement from the right reference can convince an employer that you have the right skills and experience to excel in the job.
1. Ask Your Manager or a Past Boss, but Be Careful
In an ideal world, a direct manager or supervisor would act as your reference and would be willing to discuss specific examples as to how you excelled in your role and added to the value to the team, department or company while in your position. The absence of a supervisor in your group of references can incite questions about your performance on the job.
Employers will understand if you leave off a current supervisor because you don’t want to jeopardize the job you have already. In that case, you might say a reference from a current supervisor can be provided if an offer is pending. It is then more important to include a past boss.
2. When to Ask Anyone Other Than Your Manager
If you had any issues with your manager or supervisor, you shouldn't include them. "Issues" means anything serious, that is. Everyone makes little mistakes sometimes, but if there were any instances during your previous job in which you were disciplined or given a warning—anything that you wouldn't want a new employer to hear about—then you shouldn't ask anyone involved in that situation, managers or coworkers, to act as a reference.
3. Ask a Colleague or Coworker
References don't necessarily have to be someone you worked under. You can also ask co-workers who you have a good relationship with to act as one of your references. You could also use a friend as a reference if they can attest to your qualifications for the job.
4. Get Several References
Try to gather a group of multiple potential references, more than you think you'd need for one job. Employers will rarely ask for more than three references, but having a larger pool will allow you to choose references strategically based on the different requirements of each job.
5. Get Both Networking and Job References
Distinguish between references for job applications and references for networking purposes. Networking references don't need to have the same insight into you as a productive individual to make some introductions or ask their employer to take a careful look at your application. However, you should meet face to face with networking references and show them your resume so they can speak first-hand about your personal and communication skills if making a referral.
6. Know What Your References Will Say About You
Always choose references who have agreed to provide positive recommendations. The last thing you need when job searching is a negative reference, so be sure you are clear on how your references will endorse you. Whenever possible, ask references to compose written recommendations in advance of forwarding their name to employers, so you have a clear sense of how they will represent your background.
LinkedIn recommendations provide an excellent opportunity to pre-screen your references. Try writing one for them before you ask them to submit a LinkedIn recommendation. At a minimum, make sure a reference has verbally agreed to make a positive recommendation.
7. Make Your References Focus on Your Achievements
References who will take the time to prepare and deliver specific recommendations are often the most powerful. Your best references will be able to speak concretely and anecdotally about your skills, work ethic, and achievements on the job, in the classroom, or in your community.
8. Match Your References to the Job Requirements
Ask yourself which of your references can provide the most compelling evidence that you have the assets to excel in the job you're applying for.
9. Pick and Choose Depending on the Job
Think of your reference selections as a group. One reference may be able to speak to a critical strength like problem-solving while another might be able to endorse another key qualification like presentation skills. Make sure your roster of references for a particular job can cover as many of core job requirements as possible.
10. Internal References Have a High Impact on Hiring
If you have any connections within the company you're applying to who you think would be able to speak to your abilities, then you should certainly ask if they would be willing to stand as one of your references.
If you don't have too much of work history with them, then you might want to supply three other references, and then ask your internal connection to informally "chime in" on your behalf if they believe you'd be a good fit for the job. Here’s how to ask for a referral for a job.
11. Update Your Reference Selections Periodically
Add new supporters and move individuals off your list if they seem less than enthusiastic, or if a lot of time has passed since you've worked with them. Take the time to follow up to let your references know the status of your job search, and advise them when you get a new position.
12. Recommendations Outside of Paid Positions
If you have any involvement in continuing education, volunteering or community work, supervisors or peers in those roles will be able to provide references, too. However, avoid using acquaintances or family friends who haven't had any exposure to you in a work-related setting.
13. Recent Graduates Can Use Faculty References
Faculty can provide an excellent bridge to former students who will often have fond memories of the professor and great respect for their judgment.
Give to Get a Reliable Reference
Giving to get works well when you’re lining up employment references. Take the time to offer to provide a reference to the people who are giving you one. Even a boss can use a good recommendation from an employee. Your colleagues, clients, and coworkers will also appreciate the offer.