Everything You Need to Know About Job References

Jay Mava / Published January 14, 2020

Connections To Reach Out For References

Quite often in your job search, you may come across the need for references. In this case, you may be wondering exactly what the employer is looking for upon this request. Are they asking for strictly professional work references or are personal references acceptable as well? Are people really still using references to get work or is that a thing of the past?



The truth is that references are still, without a doubt, one of the most important parts in the job application process. The employer may be on the fence between who to choose for the position. A quality reference from a trusted person could be the determining factor on whether or not you get the job.



You’ve worked too hard to make avoidable errors at this point in your job hunt. Even if requesting references sounds straightforward, it’s unbelievable how many common mistakes job seekers make. That’s why we’ll answer all of your questions in this article when it comes to proper reference etiquette. Soon you’ll be equipped with everything you need to do in order to effectively ask for a reference and use their endorsement to help you obtain the position.



What Are Job References?



When it comes to job hunting, what exactly are references and why do you need them? The Business Dictionary defines a reference as “an individual that serves as the point of contact for employers seeking to verify or ask questions about a potential employee's background, work experience, or work ethic. An applicant may provide both professional and personal references to a potential employer.”



First, make sure you know exactly what the employer is looking for before you provide them with copies of any references. They may request references to call or, on the contrary, they may ask for a written letter of recommendation. Harvard Business Review provides more information on requesting reference letters here.



Quite often, employers are just seeking a previous supervisor to tell them about your work ethic and may not require a letter. If this is the case, you will want to provide the full name, company name, relationship and phone number of each of your references printed on one piece of paper. Two or three references works perfectly – any more than that is a little excessive. The employer certainly won’t be calling a huge list of people.



When to Use Job References



One thing to note is that you should only mention or give references upon the company requesting them. Even if you think the interview was a success, it’s best to not volunteer them. This can come off like you think you’ve already secured the position. Some employers may find this a little off-putting if it’s too early in the process. Generally, hiring managers will ask for references once they’ve narrowed down their search.



However, you should always come prepared to the interview with them ready to go. Have your references available in case the employer does ask. Don’t be alarmed if they don’t ask at this point; sometimes they will give you a call and ask for them later.



Always remember that this paper has your references’ private contact information. This is not something to be given out to everyone. That’s why it’s better to wait until the hiring process is further along to provide references. If one of your contacts is receiving constant phone calls in your job hunt, they can quickly grow tired of it. Remember that their time needs to respected, since they are doing you a favor.



Find Testimonials Via Email or On LinkedIn



One of the smartest things you can do is find testimonials about you from previous employers, mentors or co-workers. Much like in the marketing world, these statements about you provide social proof. In marketing, social proof is evidence to show the buyer that they are making the right decision. When it comes to the hiring process, testimonials and references are social proof to employers. When previous supervisors or mentors are willing to stand by you, it shows the potential employer that they would be making a good decision hiring you as well.



Start by reaching out to a few previous employers or co-workers. A great way to do this is via email, so they can respond in their own time. Always be as upfront as possible and let them know why you’re asking for a testimonial specifically. Tell them exactly which position and industry you are trying to obtain work in. This can help them tailor the review to the necessary industry. Let the person know that you can provide them with a template or examples of what you’re looking for. The less time they have to spend on writing the testimonial, the more likely they will be to agree.



You can even use previous positive feedback from emails and tailor it slightly if need be. You still need to obtain permission from whoever wrote it, but this can save them time from writing a new testimonial. Send them an email letting them know what you will be doing with the testimonial. Let them know you’d really appreciate holding onto it for future use in your job search.



It’s also a great idea to upload all of these testimonials to LinkedIn. Employers are checking up on candidates online very often in this day and age. You can use any of your testimonials from previous employers or happy clients too.



Remember that there is no better social proof than powerful testimonials combined with positive references. Use this combination to help solidify the employer’s decision to bring you onto the team. Compile these testimonials over time and have one page ready to go at an employer’s request.



How to Ask for A Professional Reference



When you’ve worked hard for a company, the employer is usually more than happy to provide you with a professional reference. The same goes for personal references – you’ll find that many people are happy to help you if you go about it in the right way.



Request and get consent to use someone as a reference in advance. Give them as much time as possible to prepare, especially if you are requesting a letter of reference. It’s not fair to ask for this at the last minute, because you never know what that person has going on.



A phone call always works better than an email, but both are still acceptable. Picking up the phone is always more personal, but you can use your discretion based on your relationship with the person. Another benefit to actually speaking with them is that you can better hear if they have any reservations about being your reference. You want to make sure they are completely on board with helping you out, otherwise it may not work in your favor. If they seem uninterested, accept it and move on to asking someone else.



If the person does agree to be your reference, you should tell them exactly what the company requires. Will the employer be calling your reference, or do you need a written letter as well? Fill them in as much as possible so there are no surprises. Give them a little background information on the company you’ve applied to. If you’d like them to focus on certain skills or attributes of yours that will be useful in getting the job, then let them know that as well. If you want a specific outcome with the call or letter, don’t be afraid to ask.



Who to Ask: Professional vs. Personal References



Are you wondering who are the best people are to use for references? If so, you’re not alone. Many people are often unsure of whether they should use a professional or personal reference. This is a common question that comes up often in the hiring process.



Although many recruiters prefer a previous employer to refer you, sometimes this doesn’t work for everyone. If this is one of your first jobs or you have only just completed schooling, you may need to reach out to other people in your network. Don’t worry about it too much if you don’t have enough professional work references from past employers. The main priority now is making sure you only ask people who you can trust and would give you a positive review.



The good news is, you do have a variety of other options to help you out if you’re lacking previous work experience. You can find other reliable sources even if you haven’t been employed by them. These references are commonly called personal or character references – and they are completely acceptable as well. Whether you’re experienced, or this is your first job, you can likely find someone to vouch for you. Besides a previous employer, some other good examples of people you can ask are:



  • Former or current co-worker
  • Mentor
  • Past teacher or professor
  • Someone in your community, such as a coach
  • Friend



If you’ve ever volunteered or taken part in an internship, these are excellent opportunities for references as well. Did you ever play sports or get involved in the community? Think about every potential person who can speak to your work ethic and character. Reach out to a couple of people who you think would be happy to provide positive feedback to your employers.



When asking someone for a reference, try to be straightforward and appreciative of their time. If they say yes, be sure to express your gratitude for the favor they’re doing.



Give Your References a Heads Up



If you think the company is going to reach out to your references, be sure to let them know ahead of time. A surprise phone call can put you at an extreme disadvantage. It can put your reference in an awkward situation if they’re caught off guard. On the other hand, if they’re actually expecting the phone call, they will be better prepared to speak about you in a positive way.



Once the employer requests a copy of your references, be sure to let your contact know that they should be expecting a phone call within the next few days. Ask them to keep you in the loop in case the company does decide to perform a reference check.



There is one thing to keep in mind in the instance of using older references. First you should double check that they are still okay with continuing to provide you with a good review before you give out their name. Also make sure that this experience is still relevant to the position you are applying for. Over time, a lot can change with your work ethic. Your new potential employer will want to hear from more recent references if they are available. List your best and most recent references first, since the employer may not actually call everyone on your list.



Thank Your References



Always thank your references for helping you out. Request for them to contact you back if the company does end up reaching out to them. It’s a good idea to ask for some insight on what was said during the conversation, so you know what to expect.



Stay on good terms with anybody who provides you with a good reference. You never know when you might need their help again. Try not to overuse your references – this is why you should only give them out when the employer specifically requests them. You can show your gratitude by sending them a thank you note or email after the fact. Be sure to update them if you secure the job and thank them again for their help.



Compile Testimonials Over Time



Throughout your career, compile a list of testimonials from people as you go. You never know when they will come in handy in your professional career. It’s better to collect them in advance, so they’re ready whenever you need them. When your hard work is fresh in someone’s mind, they are more likely to provide a raving review.



Lastly, remember that the job seeking process can be a hard one at times. At a minimum, you can use these testimonials to bring you up on a day when you are feeling low. Reflect on the feedback as a reminder of the hard work you’ve done for people over time. This should give you a little boost of confidence when you need it.



It’s Your Turn



Now that you know the proper etiquette for requesting references, go out there and get that job! And be sure to subscribe to our mailing list so you don’t miss out on any of our tips to help you in your job search.


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