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How to Choose Professional References

How to Choose Professional References


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Job references are one major aspect of job searching. We need to choose people who are the best possible stand-ins for ourselves—people we trust to support us, stand with us, and make us out to be the best possible candidate for the job.

Finding people to say good things about you may sound like an easy task. However, choosing people who can speak to your skills and work ethic on a professional level should be taken seriously. That’s why it’s important for job seekers to pay close attention to the finer details of securing job references.

What Is a Professional Reference?

A professional job reference is someone who can “talk up” your ability to do the job. Usually, this reference is a boss or coworker. However, a professional reference can also come from a client or a vendor, depending on your employment situation.

In the case of someone with no work experience, finding a professional reference can be tricky. However, with a little bit of creative thinking, you can find people who can highlight your skills and use them as a professional reference.

What’s a Personal Reference?

Personal references are people who can speak to who you are as a person, but not your professional abilities. For example, a personal reference can talk about your integrity or character, but can’t talk about your familiarity with social media marketing.

As a rule, employers don’t ask for personal references. And though you may be tempted to use a personal reference as a professional reference, this is generally not advised.

Who to Use as a Job Reference (and Who to Skip)

Sometimes it’s hard to find professional references, especially if you haven’t had a lot of work experience, have had some jobs that you’d like to leave off your resume, or have employment gaps.

But when choosing who to use as a job reference, you want to select people who can not only speak to your professional abilities but will also say positive things about those abilities. And you should also choose people who employers would consider unbiased in their reference.

Family

While family members may seem like an easy choice, they are not the best choice for a professional reference.

The one exception might be if you’ve worked for a family business and your family member is also your boss (or coworker). In this case, you might list them as a reference. However, be warned that if you are related, the hiring manager may discount this reference or give it less value because you are related, on the assumption that the reference may not be as neutral for you as they would be for a non-family member.

Friends

It may also be tempting to ask your friends, family friends, and members of your softball team to act as professional references. However, similar to using family for professional references, friends do not make the best choice unless they can talk about your professional skills and abilities.

Supervisors

Supervisors generally make fantastic professional references. Even if you’re applying for a supervisory position, your boss can talk about what kind of employee you are and what kind of supervisor you might make.

In general, you should use a past supervisor for a professional reference.

Coworkers

Past and current colleagues are great references when you can’t use a supervisor. Just make sure you’re on good terms with them, and they can speak about your professional skills and big wins.

Someone at the Company

If you happen to know someone that works at the company you’re applying to, try to use them as a professional reference. Positive references from a current employee can go a long way toward helping you get an offer.

How to Choose a Professional Reference

Having a varied list of references can paint a bigger picture for your future employer as to what kind of employee you’d really be. Try to get at least two to three of these categories represented:

  • Someone you worked with (i.e., a former colleague or peer)
  • A former boss
  • A client who hired you (especially if you’re looking to land freelance work)
  • Someone who worked for you, like another employee or even an intern

Evaluation Criteria

Before reaching out to anyone, evaluate how good of a professional reference they might be. This means assessing your current relationship with them and how they might act as a reference.

Start with the possible references who are currently a part of your life. This can be people you work with now or people you used to work with (or for) but still have regular contact with.

Then, assess whether or not those people are communicative. You want references who respond to requests quickly. If someone on your list has a habit of not returning your messages for weeks, consider skipping them as a reference.

Finally, think about what your reference should say. This goes beyond the merely positive, “They were wonderful to work with.” Your reference should also add compelling details about you as a worker to give the employer a fuller picture of who you are and how you work.

But, in addition to being compelling, what can your reference say? Ask yourself if they are aware of or can speak to your major work accomplishments. Can they speak about your strengths and areas of expertise? Will they be able to handle questions about you with grace? If you’re not sure about the answers, either have a discussion with your potential reference about these topics or choose someone else.

How to Ask and Prep a Professional Reference

Once you’ve established your list of professional references, don’t supply them to employers without asking them to act as a reference.

More than likely, your job reference would be happy to do it—just don’t assume that they will. So, how do you ask someone to be your reference? And how do you prepare them to be a stellar professional reference?

Reach Out Before

Ideally, you’ll ask your references to act as a reference long before you need them. If you can, contact people at the beginning of your job search and see if they’re willing to do it. This gives them time to think about your request without any pressure (“I need an answer by tomorrow!”). It also gives you time to prepare them when they do get the reference request.

Tell Them It’s Coming

As a rule, you will not supply references until after you’ve finished a final interview, but before you’ve secured a job offer. Once you’ve been asked for the references, reach out and let your reference know they will likely be contacted in the near future. Let them know who will contact them, what the position is, and, if appropriate, what was discussed during your interview. If you have the information about how the references will be contacted (you may not, though), then let you contacts know this.

Tell Them Your Goals

When speaking with your reference, let them know how the position you’re applying for ties into your career goals and how your work with them would make you a top candidate for the job. Then, they can give a clearer reference with specific talking points that can support their argument for offering you the job.

Give Specifics

Explain what you would like them to say. For example, you can ask a former boss to offer insight into your work ethic and your ability to come up with new ideas but kindly remind them of specific achievements or professional wins you’ve added that made a positive impact in past positions, especially if it’s been a while.

Make Your List of Professional References

One final tip: After your references have spoken to your potential employer, make sure you thank your reference and let them know the outcome. Even if you didn’t get the job, it’s a nice way to acknowledge what the reference has done for you professionally.

While it’s no longer a common practice to put “references available upon request” on your resume, you still need professional job references ready to speak on your behalf if you’re in an active job search. More importantly, though, you need job references who know they are your professional reference, and are ready to respond when the call comes.

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