Top Five Rules of Using Professional References

Jul 11, 2019

It is common for employers in many industries to ask for professional references to learn more about you as a person and as an employee. If several candidates are neck-and-neck for the position, the reference checks can make or break who ends up with the job.

So how do you go about using references? Here are the top five rules that you need to remember when compiling your list.

5. Keep your references on a separate sheet from your resume and cover letter. Have your cover letter state that references are available upon request. This sheet should contain each reference’s name, title, company, email, and phone number. Most companies will tell you how many references they’d like to speak with, but if not, three is the minimum you should include.

You also have the option of adding a brief (one-to-two sentence) introduction for each reference and how you interacted. If you choose to do this, make sure you aren’t regurgitating information from your resume or cover letter. Use this space to add to your story, not repeat it.

4. Only use someone as a reference if you are sure that they will speak highly of you. Sometimes companies have a neutral reference policy—they only confirm employment dates and verify your position. Try to find someone who is free to talk about why you are the perfect candidate for the position you’re trying to get. Past supervisors are the most helpful references, as they have monitored your work and should know your quality and dedication. You could also list a coworker, other business contact (such as a vendor or resource), or even a past client. Bottom line: the person should be willing to sing your praises and have the experience with you to back it up.

3. Thank your references after they are contacted. These people have taken time from their day to speak on your behalf, and ultimately are working to help you get the job. A handwritten note is the best way to convey your appreciation, but an email is fine as well. If you are applying for many positions and your references have been inundated with calls, consider sending each a small gift. Bonus: Pay it forward! Offer yourself as a reference to employees, coworkers, or other contacts who you feel comfortable supporting. But be prepared to politely decline if you do not think you will represent their best interests.

2. Don’t use family as a reference. Don’t even use friends unless they can attest to your strengths and abilities in your workplace. Employers will be suspect of family bias, and your friends may not have enough information about your workplace to be helpful. This could even hurt your chances as discussed above.

Even if you are new to the workforce, you still have options. You can list supervisors from internships, volunteer work, or summer jobs. You can even ask a professor who supervised a large-scale class project to speak on your behalf. You need people who can talk about your work ethic and responsibilities.

1. You MUST get permission to use someone as a reference! Ask your contact if you can give their information to potential employers. Some people might not feel comfortable speaking with strangers even for a good cause. (This is also the time to confirm that they will say good things about you.) Let the reference know that they might receive a call or email asking about you. You don’t want them to be blindsided and confused when someone calls or emails them out of the blue to ask about you.
Give your reference examples of the positions for which you are applying. You can even send them the job description(s), as long as there aren’t too many. Make sure to provide them with the most recent copy of your resume and ask if they have any questions.

Written by: Sarah Perlman

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