How To Get the Best References

How To Get the Best References

What’s almost as important as your resume and cover letter, and much more likely to slip your mind during the job search process? Finding references who can attest to your skills, experience, and performance on the job. It’s really important to line up references who can advocate for your candidacy for a job.

To get the most out of your job references, make sure you select people who will make a strong case on your behalf. The best choices include former colleagues—including managers, coworkers, and direct reports—and clients, vendors, and other folks who will confirm that you’re a superior candidate.

Be assured that your references will get a chance to sing your praises. According to a Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) survey, 92% of employer conduct background checks during the pre-employment process—and typically, those checks include speaking with references. So, it’s important to make sure you’ve lined up the right people when you launch your job search.

Here’s how to get the best references, who (and who not) to ask for a reference, and the best way to ask for for one.

How To Get the Best References

The best potential references:

  • Are familiar with your work. A good reference will be able to tell a story about your skills in action. It’s not enough to speak glowingly in general terms about your work ethic, computer skills, or ability to mediate conflict. They’ll need to provide specific examples of times when you demonstrated these talents. Because of this, it’s often best to choose references who’ve recently worked with you.
  • Have good things to say. This seems like an obvious point, but it’s an important one: don’t choose a reference who won’t have positive experiences and impressions to report. A negative reference—or even a “meh” one—will do far more harm than no reference at all.
  • Can devote time to crafting an endorsement. A hurried, typo-riddled endorsement won’t reflect well on you. Neither will a rushed conversation between urgent meetings. Choose people who can set aside some time to speak with you about the job and hear which qualifications will be most impressive to the hiring team—and then communicate those points in their interactions with the employer.
  • Present themselves in a professional manner. For a variety of reasons, some people don’t come across well during an initial conversation. Perhaps your former boss has a phone phobia and comes across as gruff when speaking with strangers. Maybe your favorite client tends to curse a blue streak, even around people they’ve just met. Whatever the reason, it’s best to avoid asking people for references unless they can conduct themselves professionally in this context.


5 People You Should Never Ask for a Reference

The worst potential references include:

1. Someone Who Might Say Something Negative … or Even Less Than Positive

Obviously, you wouldn’t ask someone to be a reference for you if you thought they’d say something bad about your work. That’s why it’s important to check in and see if they feel comfortable providing a reference for you—hopefully, you’ll get a sense as to what they might say.

Keep in mind, however, that damnation by faint praise is also very possible during the reference process. The hiring managers will assume that anyone you ask to give you a recommendation is among your biggest fans. If they get a so-so reference, they might think that this was the best you could do. Not good.

2. That Brilliant Connection Who Doesn’t Communicate Well

This might sound judgmental, but now’s not the time to lean on your connections who mean well, but don’t speak (or write) well. Remember that your network reflects on you, especially when they’re praising your work. If they don’t seem on top of things themselves, they won’t be able to impress a hiring manager on your behalf. What good is a recommendation if it comes from someone the employer wouldn’t hire?

3. Your Current Boss, Except Under Very Specific Circumstances

This is another potentially obvious one, but it’s worth saying, anyway. Unless you’ve been laid off or you’re working on a short-term contract—in short, unless your boss knows you’re leaving, and is OK with it—don’t ask them for a reference.

4. The Former Colleague You Don’t Respect

Whenever you consider asking someone for a reference, ask yourself, “Would I provide a reference for this person, in return?” If you can’t honestly and wholeheartedly say yes, move on to the next connection on your list. At best, it’s unfair to ask for something you wouldn’t reciprocate; at worst, it might be your gut instincts telling you that this colleague isn’t in your corner.

5. Anyone You Haven’t Asked to Be a Reference

It should go without saying, but even if you’re reasonably sure your former colleague or professor would give you a glowing recommendation, you should ask first, for several reasons.

First of all, it’s just polite. If you’re like most people, you probably don’t love being surprised with phone calls and emails, asking you for things you weren’t expecting. Even if you’re a raving extrovert, recognize that your potential references might not be the same way. Regardless, you’re asking for their time, and that’s valuable. Do them the courtesy of giving them a chance to tell you if they can spare a few minutes right now to help you out.

Second, your recommendation will be better if the recommender knows more about the job for which you’re interviewing. Giving a heads up—and a little background info—gives your connection time to think about which aspects of your skillset and experience are most important for this new role, and allows them a chance to prepare some thoughts to share with your interviewer.

Third, there’s a possibility that this person won’t be allowed to give you a reference—or at least, a detailed enough recommendation to count. HR policies vary from company to company, but some employers are strict about how much information a manager, for example, is allowed to give about a former report. Don’t assume that you know the policy ahead of time.

Finally, there’s always the chance that your assessment of the relationship is flat-out wrong. The worst time to find out that someone wouldn’t recommend your work is after they’ve told a hiring manager that they wouldn’t hire you again under any circumstances.

An additional note: how you ask matters, as well. Don’t just ask if the person will give you a reference. Ask, “Do you think you know my work well enough to provide me with a reference?” or similar. That way, you’ll get a sense of what you can expect this person to say.

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  • March 24, 2023