Employer Reference: How to Get a Great Job Reference and Get the Offer

As you prepare for employer reference checks, here’s a great checklist to ensure your employment references will help you clinch the deal.

Your resume is polished. Your interview skills are practiced and honed. You’re actively networking (and following up!). The last detail to tie up: Job references. There are a few key considerations when choosing the best employment references for your job search. Let’s take a look at them.

Make sure the employer reference you use is really relevant to the job you’re searching for.

This is an often-overlooked point, but don’t ask your Aunt Sally to be a reference for a high-level position as a computer technician. Many candidates somehow miss this nugget of career advice. Potential employers will be looking for job references from people who know what you can do and how well you can do it — as well as how responsible you are on the job. Always pick people who have seen you in action and who know what you can do. This may mean, for example, that you don’t choose your department head from a previous position, but you do choose your direct supervisor or a coworker. These people are going to have seen you do the job and will know what to tell a prospective employer.

Make sure employer references are current.

Don’t keep an “old” employer reference around to use on future job searches unless you have kept in touch with these people and they still know what you can do. There are some key problems with using old employment references. Number one, a potential employer may wonder why the ones you have aren’t more current. And number two, if these references have moved, changed contact information, or, heaven forbid, have forgotten you, it’s going to be a poor reflection on you to any prospective employer. So make sure your references are current, including all relevant contact information.

Make sure you’re in good standing with people you want to use as an employer reference.

If you left a previous position under less than stellar circumstances, chances are you’re not going to want to use a previous supervisor, for example, as an employer reference. Even if the reason for leaving was not related to job performance but was perhaps due to a personality conflict, it’s still going to put you in an unenviable position to ask that person for a reference. Instead, choose people as employment references you’re still in good standing with and with whom you have professional rapport.

Make sure you’ve asked and gotten permission from those you want to use as employment references.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be pretty startling to be listed as someone’s reference on his or her resume when you haven’t been asked. Make sure you’ve asked and gotten permission to use someone as an employment reference before you do so.

DON’T include reference information on your resume.

Do have a separate listing of references available for those who request references, but don’t include it as one of the sections on your resume. During the interview, if a perspective employer asks for references you can give him or her your reference sheet (you should have it handy). If you are applying for more than one job and those jobs are in disparate job sectors (even though skills may overlap somewhat), you should have separate resumes and separate references for each job specialization.

Former coworkers may make good employment references, too.

Especially if you left your last job under less than stellar circumstances (even if it wasn’t your fault), former coworkers may make very good employment references as well. In other words, you don’t always have to use references from people who were in a supervisory role over you (but they often help). Former coworkers often know the duties of a particular job much better than supervisors do, and can speak much more directly to your abilities and strengths. They’re also much more likely to say positive things about you than a former supervisor might, again, especially if the job situation was somewhat rocky.

If you’re a recent college grad without a lot of work experience, taking this approach can be especially beneficial as you likely won’t have a lot of supervisory contacts to approach. However, you may have been mentored during internships by more experienced coworkers who certainly saw your initiative, talent and drive.

Three to five references are enough.

For each job specialization (if you are applying for more than one type of job), you should list three to five strong references with contact information. Make sure the contact information is complete and current. It should include the person’s name, title, company name and business address, e-mail address, and phone or cell phone number. If you can’t come up with five, one or two supervisors and a co-worker will usually suffice.

Stay in touch with employer references you plan to use.

It’s inevitable that references are eventually going to “age off” your list of references, unless you keep in constant contact with them. However, for those you plan to use during a job search, make sure you’ve kept in touch with them and that each has a copy of your most current resume. Your reference should also know what type of job you’re looking for.

Don’t forget to say “THANK YOU”!

Your employment references are doing you a favor, so make sure you thank them when they first commit to being your reference and then again after the current job search you’re doing is complete. Simply sending a follow up note that says, “Thanks so much for your help,” or something similar is going to make them feel as though what they did was worthwhile — and of course, it’s simply common courtesy as well.

Good luck!

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