Asking for references: Do’s & don’ts

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You’ve applied for an awesome job with a great employer. Your first interview went well. Your second interview went gangbusters. And now you’re excitedly waiting for an offer of employment!

But the offer never materializes.

After week or so, you receive an email stating the company has hired another candidate. You’re confused: what could possibly have gone wrong?

In situations like these, it’s highly likely that your professional references didn’t check out or weren’t strong enough. Think about it: when you’re on the shortlist of candidates, your qualifications are usually very similar to those of the other applicants. Oftentimes, the key differentiator that decides who gets the job is which candidate is the best cultural and personality fit. And the only way a hiring manager can find this out is by asking someone who’s worked with you before.

That’s why references are so important. Though most companies don’t provide references for legal reasons, you can ask your connections for personal references. Keep the following do’s and don’ts in mind.

  • Do secure references before applying for any position. Asking people to be a reference can take some time, so you’re best advised to get to work on this before you even send out your résumé.
  • Don’t list just anyone. It might seem logical to simply list your supervisors from your last three positions, but there’s no guarantee they’re the best people to speak about your qualifications. Spend some time thinking about all of the people you worked with in each position you’ve held, and determine who is most likely to speak glowingly of you.
  • Do diversify. Narrow your list down to about 10 people who can vouch for you in regard to a range of different qualifications. For example, if you’re applying for a graphic designer job, it’s useful to have some people who can vouch for your photo editing skills and others who can vouch for your logo design skills. That way, you can approach them according to their relevance to your desired position.
  • Don’t forget to consider communication skills. You want your references to be able to speak and write clearly and enthusiastically on your behalf. Avoid listing someone whose emails are typically one-liners without capitalization or punctuation, for example. It’s also a good idea to leave people who don’t reply to calls or emails promptly off the list.
  • Do ask your prospective references for their permission to list them. The best way to approach people is by email. That way, they’ll have the opportunity to think about your request and decide whether they can and want to help you.
  • Don’t push for an answer. It can take people a while to get back to you, so if you don’t hear anything right away, wait for a week before reaching out again. If you don’t hear anything after that, it’s best to let it go and look for another reference.
  • Do provide your references with relevant information. As Anne Pushkal states in The Muse article “The Right (and Wrong) Way to Ask Someone to Be a Reference,” it’s important to make the process easy. Ideally, you’d send a résumé or a link to your LinkedIn profile along with a separate document listing your accomplishments during the time you were working together. You should also include a description of the jobs you’re applying to and which qualifications you think will make the most impact.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for a letter of reference. In her Careerrealism article “6 Steps to Asking for a Reference,” Mary Sherwood Sevinsky advises also asking for a letter of reference. Letters of reference can be included in job applications and sometimes reduce the need for hiring managers to follow up in person.
  • Do remember to give your references a heads up each time you list them. Be courteous, and send out a quick email every time you list someone as a reference. Let him or her know what job you’re applying to and what the name is of the hiring manager (if you know it).
  • Don’t forget to follow up. It’s important that you follow up with your references when you have news. Let them know if you weren’t offered or accept a job, and thank them if you did get the job. And remember to offer to reciprocate in the future.

Having good references can mean the difference between being shortlisted for a job and actually getting it. With these do’s and don’ts in mind, you can be prepared whenever an employer wants to check your references.

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