Although I’ve written about choosing references tangentially before, I don’t think I’ve ever written a blog on exactly how to go about it. So, here are some tips for selecting references that will raise the process to something close to an art form for you!
First, and most importantly, references need to be not only people who are your friends, but also people whom you’ve actually worked with on a day-to-day basis within the last 5 to 7 years. Why those rather narrow parameters? Because, if a prospective employer, or its agents, actually calls your references, your references need to have a fairly thorough knowledge of the particulars of your job performance. Listing the president of your company, six levels above your pay grade, who may only have a vague knowledge that you work for him is a waste of time because he won’t have the level of knowledge that a prospective employer is seeking. Why the “5 to 7 years” limitation? Because, if you list people you worked with a decade ago, it’s going to rather difficult for them to remember the details of your job performance that long ago.
Next, references need to be people whom you’ve worked with for at least a year or two. Why? Because a work-related reference you’ve worked with for only a few months probably won’t be that familiar with the details of your job performance that a prospective employer will need.
Third, be sure to ask the people you select as references if they will be willing to serve as a reference for you. That’s why friends who are also coworkers are the best references. Furthermore, your references won’t be surprised when a prospective employer or its agents call. Now, suppose your company has a “no comment” policy that ostensibly prohibits anybody except someone from the HR department from providing reference information or that you don’t want the boss to know you’re looking for another job. If you’ve worked there for, let’s say, five or more years, surely you know a few people who are your friends and would be willing to serve confidentially as references for you, but prefer to talk to a prospective employer only from home. That’s fine! Obviously, you don’t want to put a friend and coworker in an uncomfortable position; so, when you’re providing the names of your references to a prospective employer, just explain the situation and 99 percent of the time it will be fine. In addition, if they’re your friends, simply ask them not to disclose the possibility of your finding a better job. If they’re really friends, they won’t betray your request for confidentiality.
Fourth, never list as a reference anyone who hasn’t given you express permission to do so! There’s nothing more awkward than calling a reference who isn’t expecting a call and having him say, “I had no idea so-and-so was looking for another job! I can’t imagine why he would list me as a reference – I barely know him!”
If finding references willing to talk to a prospective employer because of company policy becomes difficult, remember that people whom you’ve worked with who have taken other jobs or retired or moved can still be great references for you.
Fifth, keep in mind that the ideal set of three references would be a friend you’ve worked for, a friend you’ve worked with, and, if possible, a friend who has worked for you. If that third one isn’t possible, a couple of people you’ve worked with and one supervisor will be just fine.
Last, be sure to tell the folks you’ve asked to be references for you that all you want them to do is give honest answers to any of the questions a prospective employer may ask.
Now you’re armed with tips that will raise reference checking to an art form!