Choosing References for a Job Search



At some point in every job search, a candidate is asked for references. References may be requested with the initial application materials, or may be asked for later after the interview. Although it is a common part of the job search process, deciding who to use as a reference is often a source of stress for candidates. This article presents some quick tips to help you decide how to choose the best references.

Determine the Type of Reference Sought

Most employers will seek employment references, although some may ask for character references, and still others may seek a combination of both. Employment references are people who know you in the capacity of your work. These are current or former supervisors, colleagues, clients, or subordinates. Character references are people who know you outside of work, such as through community service activities or long-time family friends.

It is also important to know if an employer wants a list of references or letters of recommendation. The most common request is for a list of references, which is a document you prepare listing each reference’s name, title and contact information. Employers will then contact each person and arrange a time to talk. Letters of recommendation are letters written by your references specifically explaining your skills and abilities, and why you are a good fit for the job. If the employer does not specify the type of reference it is appropriate to ask to ensure you are providing the proper information.

Create a List of Possible References

Start by creating a list for yourself of potential references. Think about all the people you have worked with that could speak positively about you. In some situations you may be moving to a very similar job, so your references could speak about specific projects that may be the same at the new job. More likely, however, the new job will be different in scope and perhaps level of responsibility so you should seek references who can generally speak about you.

In choosing references, think about what they will be asked to talk about, and choose people who can speak about you in some detail on those topics. In general, references are asked about the following skills: time management, work ethic, team player, leadership qualities, attention to detail, ability to get along with others and work collaboratively, ability to work under pressure, and general work attitude.

Talk with Your Potential References First

Always contact the people you choose as references before you submit them to an employer. Not only to ask their permission, but also to inform them about the jobs to which you are applying, why you are interested in those roles, and why you believe you are a good fit for those jobs. Your references are an important price in your job search, because they will have a chance to talk to the employer about how you were successful when they worked with you and advocate that you will continue to be successful in a new job.

When to Provide a Reference from your Current Employer

A challenging situation arises when an employer asks for a reference from your current job. It may be that you have not told your current employer that you are seeking a new job, and by providing a reference they will know. One way to deal with this is to tell the potential new employer that your job search up to this point has been confidential. Offer to provide them with references from past employers, and let them know that should the process move further you are happy to provide a reference from your current employer at that time. The goal is to avoid letting your current employer know until you have moved far enough in the process that it is likely you will get the job.

A second possibility is to provide a reference of someone who previously worked with you at your current employer, but has since moved on to another job. That person will have the unique perspective of having worked with you in your current job, but will no longer have ties to your current employer. Finally a third possibility is choosing a mentor or colleague at your current employer who you trust to keep your search confidential.

Think of your references as a valuable tool in the job application process. By taking the time to think through who to choose and talking with them briefly about your interest in the job, they can be a powerful ally in your search.


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