3 Ways to Make Your Professional Reference’s Job Easier


I recently received a phone call asking if I would provide a professional reference for someone named Margaret. I racked my brain, trying to remember a student, client, or someone I worked with in the Marine Corps by that name — but I came up empty. I even tried thinking of a Marge or a Maggie or some other variation of the name, but I had no luck.

Therefore, I did not call back.

However, after receiving two more calls asking for a reference, I decided to return the call — but only to let the employer know I didn’t know anyone by that name.

Don’t be like Margaret. Don’t jeopardize your job search by failing to have enthusiastic and reliable references on your side. Make it easy for your references to speak highly about you, your employment, and your accomplishments by providing them with as much information as possible before they are called.

Here is some practical advice to follow the next time you’re asked for references:

1. Ask Permission First

Contact your potential references and ask if you have their permission to use them as references. If they say yes, ask for their preferred email address and phone number by which to be contacted.

If you are not sure if the person will remember you, prepare to provide some brief background on your relationship. Maybe you worked together on a committee or the person was your college professor. Whatever the case, provide a few details to jog their memory.

If a person does not respond promptly to your request, I recommend finding another reference. Do not beg someone to be a reference. If they seem uninterested, they are unlikely to sell you to your new employer.

2. Keep Them Updated

After you have applied for a position, alert your references. Tell them a little about the job and organization. I recommend providing them with a copy of the job ad, as this will help them anticipate questions and formulate answers in advance.

If the job or industry you are pursuing has its own specific set of buzzwords and jargon — and your reference doesn’t work in the field — I also recommend supplying your reference with a list of relevant keywords. This will help them understand the job better while also tailoring their answers to the industry.

Finally, you should also give an up-to-date copy of your resume to your references so they can speak knowledgeably about your key accomplishments as a professional.

3. Prepare a List of Questions

In addition to giving your reference information about the job and your career to date, you may also want to help them prepare for the reference check itself. Consider giving them a list of questions they can rehearse in advance. Some of the most common questions your references are likely to be asked include:

  1. When did [name] work for your company? Can you provide a start and end date?
  2. What was their salary when they left?
  3. What was their position?
  4. Did this person miss a lot of work?
  5. Did they get along well with others?
  6. What was their biggest accomplishment while working at your company?
  7. How do you know this person?
  8. How long did this person work for you?
  9. What are their strengths?
  10. What is their main weakness?
  11. Would you hire this person again?
  12. Do you think this person can perform the duties outlined in the job description?
  13. Is there anything else you would like to add that may help us with our hiring decision?

Your references matter — perhaps even more than you realize. According to an OfficeTeam survey of hiring managers, about 21 percent of candidates are removed from consideration after their references are checked. My advice: Only use enthusiastic references who will speak positively about you. Don’t make Margaret’s mistake.

Jaynine Howard is a military veteran whose work as a career strategist and reinvention specialist has been recognized by professional organizations throughout the nation.

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