Job Reference Etiquette: How to Get Recommended

Job Reference Etiquette: How to Get Recommended

Taunee Besson, CMF, Senior Columnist

Q: After 6 years in my current job, I've decided it's time for a career move and a new challenge. I have a good working relationship with my manager, and I've consistently had excellent performance reviews. But I don't want to tip off my boss that I'm looking before I have an offer in hand. Who, then, should I approach for references?

In the last few years, I've been active in the Boy Scouts and my church, and thought that people I know from those places could vouch for me. But before I ask them, I have a few questions about the process:

  1. Can I use these non-work people as references?
  2. Should I put their names at the end of my resume?
  3. Should I obtain letters of recommendation from them?
  4. What's the best way to ask people if they will be a reference?

While these questions don't seem complicated compared to many you receive, I'm sure I'm not the only person who could use some help figuring out job reference protocol.

A: You're right. Confusion about references is common among job seekers. Here are some guidelines on how to use work references to successfully find a job:

  1. While many people assume work references are the best (or only) ones to get, this isn't necessarily true
  2. Many large companies have a policy to offer only job title and length of service when responding to an inquiry. For job seekers who've left positions under less than ideal circumstances, this is good news. But for people with excellent work records, it creates a serious problem.

    Discreetly find out from your manager or HR department what your company's policy on references is. If they're okay with the practice, use respected colleagues as references (but only choose ones who will keep your job hunt a secret). However, if your employer doesn't allow the disclosure of information on employees, you'll need to rely on people outside the company to discuss your work.

    Fellow volunteers for community activities – such as your colleagues from the Boy Scouts and your church – are excellent additions to a reference pool. People like this are in a unique position to know how you work and your commitment level, even though they aren't part of your professional life. Other sources of recommendations include neighbors, your attorney, old friends, ministers and even former professors or teachers (if you've kept in contact). While this latter group is less likely to be able to vouch for your work ethic, then can speak to your character, which is also important to a potential employer.

  3. Regarding whether or not to list these references on your resume, remember that submitting an overly-long resume can be dangerous
  4. A list of references at the end of the document takes up valuable space, and unless the people you're using are well known, their names will be meaningless to most hiring managers.

  5. Official letters of recommendation can be useful if you're moving to a new location, but usually aren't necessary
  6. In fact, by its nature a letter like this will have to be very general, and thus not especially useful to an employer looking to evaluate your ability to perform a specific set of skills. Making sure your references are available for calls or emails is better, because this allows hiring managers to easily get the exact information they're looking for, instead of trying to parse it from a generic letter of recommendation.

  7. If you're hesitant about asking people you know to serve as references
  8. remember that first – you must ask before you give out someone's name to a potential employer, and second – most people will consider your request a compliment. In fact, the tricky part of getting a reference isn't asking someone, but coaching them about the specific things they will be discussing with your potential employer. If you have a successful job interview and think you're in the running for a new job, it's vital that you contact your references to explain the experience, skills, and personality traits your perspective manager is looking for. With this information, they can tailor their comments to highlight your most important attributes.

When you have accepted your new position, be sure to thank them for their help by phone or in writing. They'll want to know their efforts on your behalf played a role in helping you get a new job.

Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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