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Need References? Tips for Choosing the Right Ones

written by: Mike Sweeney•edited by: Linda Richter•updated: 6/19/2011

References have always been part of resumes and job searches. The classic line, “References Upon Request” has been part of probably millions of resumes over the years. However, many of these resumes didn’t really have a prepared list that could be furnished at a moment's notice. Sound familiar?

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    Are References Necessary?

    Phone References 

    In today’s competitive job market, having high-quality references may be the one factor that sways the organization to your side. So, it becomes very important that you have the best possible list available during your job search. As you're choosing references for job applications, just who are some of the best candidates?

    Ideally, the best references are as enthusiastic about you and your skills as you are. Since being a reference is a voluntary activity, hopefully your references will provide information to a prospective employer about your talents, abilities and achievements in a way that matches what the employer is looking for. Just saying that you are a “good guy” and “nice to deal with” isn’t really that valuable, though it won't hurt you. Those types of descriptions are too vague and not descriptive enough. Plus, you're relying on the employer to use some follow-up questions with your reference to get at more information, which may or may not happen.

    So the goal here is to cut down on that happening and to attempt to control what your reference is likely to say. You want to cultivate references that will communicate - in writing and over the phone - in a professional way exactly what you need. You don’t want your references, or even the prospective employer, to over-think the conversation. It should be a pleasanty brief dialogue. Hopefully, what’s being communicated by the reference is an affirmation of what the employer thought about you in advance of the call to the reference.

    So what kind of references should you pursue? The first step is to think about your previous and current job positions, and determine just what you do that would be so valuable to another employer that could be reinforced by a reference.

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    How to Choose

    Woman writing 

    There are a couple of things to consider when choosing references for job applications. Your number-one consideration is to choose people whom you know and trust. Also, having a variety of references with a variety of backgrounds will prove to be very helpful to you. Having choices of references when the time comes is good. Don’t overlook the importance of image and titles when putting your list together. If there is someone who is newsworthy, evokes immediate recognition in the communitiy, or is a high-ranking person in his or her profession, then including them as a reference may lend a cerain cache to the list.

    How should you choose your final references? The simplest way is to first stack-rank the most important traits, characteristics, skills or experiences that the employer has identified are essential for the job you are applying for.

    For example, if having a successful track record as a mid-level manager is important, then providing a reference that has worked with you as a mentor, manager or peer, could prove very helpful for an employer trying to verify some of your answers and impressions from an interview. Ask the reference how he would describe your abilities to a prospective employer. See if you agree with his assessment. Is the information consistent with how you have described yourself to the employer during an interview?

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    If you have some on-the-job achievements that are particularly important to the employer, provide a reference who can vouch for your achievements. For example, if you achieved 200% of your sales budget as the sales manager, then having someone on the team or in the organization who can answer some questions about how you were able to hit those kinds of numbers could be helpful. If the employer is looking for someone to achieve these same kinds of numbers with a charismatic and dynamic personality, then have a reference in place who can speak about your personality along with your ability to achieve sales targets. This third-party endorsement can only be beneficial and help solidify your credentials.

    Take this same approach with all the achievements or skills that you believe are valuable for a new employer. If the employer is searching for a leader, then provide a reference that vouches for your leadership skills. If the company is looking for organizational skills in setting up a new department, then reinforce your answers with a reference that can vouch for your abilities in this area. Have a variety of references linked to each skill or achievement.

    Choose your references very carefully. Make sure they can only add a positive spin about your talent to a prospective employer. Don't forget to thank them.

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    Employer Evaluation

    Over the years, as applicants have become more attuned to interviews, employers have taken it upon themselves to do more screening and checking of applicants. From assessment tools to background checks, employers are routinely asking for and checking on references as an additional way to narrow down prospective candidates. Some check on references early in the interviewing process, while others reserve it for much later, sometimes using the references as the reinforcing tool for their final selection. Even though references are requested on almost every job application, there are still many managers and human resource departments who don’t follow up with the listed references.

    Drug testing, background checks, assessment tools, in-depth interviewing, and reference checks can usually provide enough information about a candidate to determine if he will be a good fit as a new employee. When several candidates emerge reasonably close in qualifications, then contacting a list of referrals may be the final determining factor.