Use References to Help Land a Job

Use References to Help Land a Job

Taunee Besson, CMF, Senior Columnist

Q: I know references are important when applying for a job, but I'm not sure how to use them. What's the best way to ensure they help me?

A: When job seekers talk about references, they generally have lots of opinions, but few concrete facts. Everyone agrees that references play a major role in landing a position, but hardly anyone knows exactly what that role is. If you're among the many professionals who just aren't sure what to do (or not do) about references, read on to learn the best ways to use recommendations in your job search.

Who Should You Ask for a Reference?

Most likely you'll put your managers and colleagues at the top of your list, because they're in the best position to evaluate your work. Unfortunately, however, even if you've made a huge contribution to your company and gotten great reviews, the legal and HR departments may restrict access to your colleagues because of possible litigation. In fact, they may not be able to discuss your performance at all, due to company policy.

Why would you want to sue anyone over a positive reference? You wouldn't, but many companies just feel safer keeping their employees and managers from talking about the performance of ex-employees, whether they did good or bad work. No doubt a policy like this frustrates accomplished job seekers in order to protect a few bad apples, but you might as well face the fact that you're not in a position to change it.

But don't despair – there are other people who can vouch for your excellent work. If you're in sales, for example, clients make terrific references. Purchasing managers or buyers can rely on their suppliers to corroborate their experiences. In fact, if you've had regular professional contact with anyone outside your company, don't hesitate to ask them to serve as a reference for you. If someone thinks you did a good job, they'll usually be happy to sing your praises.

If your position is strictly an inside job, however, you may still be able to get a reference from a former colleague or manager from another department, or someone who serves in a field or corporate office that's removed from your day-to-day operations. Fellow task force members, for one, are in an excellent position to discuss your initiative, follow through, team skills and creativity. And because they don't work with you directly, they may be more able to talk openly with potential employers than your manager would be. Additionally, supervisors or peers who worked with you but have left the company can also be great references, and they're not under any obligation to tow the "no comment" company line.

Of course, if you're employed and looking for another position on the down low, you probably won't want to give your current manager's name as a reference anyway. Most potential employers understand this and are willing to talk to other individuals who can vouch for your performance and integrity.

In these circumstances, some places you can go for references include volunteer work, hobby groups, university classes, neighborhood groups, political campaigns, extracurricular activities, sports teams, church congregations, alumni and professional organizations or private clubs. References from leaders in these groups can be especially useful if you've made an important contribution. Officers, board members, and committee chairs/members are a lot more memorable than someone who only attends general meetings. When it comes to references, the old saying that "you get out what you put in" is definitely true.

Making the Most of your References

While you typically don't list references on a cover letter or resume, it's a good idea to have several ready to go for when you make the initial cut with a potential employer. Because of this, try to decide who you want to vouch for you before you start your job search. After you have a list, call each person to see if they're comfortable discussing your qualifications with potential employers. This is both courteous and smart, because it alerts your references to the important role you want them to play in your job search, and provides you with the opportunity to verify their names, titles, addresses and phone numbers, etc.

After you've lined up agreements, be sure to contact your references and warn them when a company may be calling to discuss your performance. Besides just being the right thing to do, this also lets you prepare your references for the upcoming conversation. That way, you can customize your references the same way you tailor cover letters and resumes. Why do you need to do this? Two reasons:

  • You can make sure your references highlight your strongest skills for a given job.
  • Your references will do better if they're briefed on the job that you're pursuing, as well as the experience, skills, and personality traits it requires.

In other words, it serves both your self-interest and that of your references to offer some info on what to expect when they get "the call" from a potential employer. They want to present you in the best possible light, or else they wouldn't have agreed to vouch for you. Using these techniques, you can help them do it.

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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