Get your references together for your job search
An employer may ask for a reference list when considering you for a job. Get the reference format and protocol right by following these expert tips.
Your resume and cover letter may be all spiffed up, but what about your references? Employers may ask for a reference list when considering you for a job, so it needs to be in top form as well. Create yours by following these expert tips.
Format for references
Create a separate document that includes a list of people who have agreed to speak with prospective employers in support of your candidacy.
“Your references should be listed on a page separate from other job application materials,” says Jeff Shane, vice president at Allison & Taylor, a professional reference- and background-checking service based in Rochester, Michigan. “Your reference list should match your resume’s fonts and format.”
Include the names and complete contact information of each reference, including job title, employer, business address, email address and telephone number, he says. “Their relationship to you—supervisor, etc.—should also be identified,” he says.
The list can also describe how the contact knows you, giving the reference checker context and a springboard for the conversation. “Consider adding a brief paragraph that describes a project that you worked on together or a skill that the person can attest to,” says Chris Nolan, SPHR, a Maynard, Massachusetts-based HR consultant.
How many references?
It’s better to have more references than a prospective employer would likely check. Pam Venne, principal of The Venne Group, a Dallas career-management firm, advises job seekers to create a references pool. “When you’re asked for references, you can strategically choose the best people to represent what you want highlighted for the opportunity,” she says.
Typical job seekers should have three to four references, while those seeking more senior positions should consider listing five to seven, experts suggest. And be sure to list your strongest reference first.
Choosing your references
Your references are your personal evangelists—they should know you very well and be able to speak about your qualifications for the job you’re pursuing.
“Former supervisors aren't necessarily the best references since so many companies have policies prohibiting supervisors to share them,” says Christina Murphy, PHR, adjunct professor at Touro College’s Graduate School of Business.
Instead, she advises selecting people who are intimate with your work and skills. “Individuals with whom you have worked closely can make excellent references, including former clients, teammates, professors or community leaders,” she says.
If you’re concerned about what your references might say about you, have a reference-verification service check your references first. “A single negative reference can damage a candidate’s prospects for future employment,” Shane says.
Unless an employer requests otherwise, professional references are preferred over personal references, such as family, friends and neighbors, whom reference checkers will know are biased.
Building relationships with your references
Ask your references’ permission to add their names to your list. If some time has passed since your last job search, reconnect with each of your references. “It's important to keep close contact with your references,” Murphy says. “If you haven't spoken to a contact in a while, don't expect a glowing recommendation.”
Venne stresses the importance of informing your references that they might be contacted. “I once had a great candidate who didn’t inform his references I might be calling, and two of the three wouldn’t take my calls,” she says. “He lost the job opportunity.”
Be sure to respect your references’ privacy. “Ask each reference if there’s any information they do not want listed—this will help protect your contact’s private information,” Nolan says.
And don't forget to keep your references in the loop. When you're interviewing, reach out to your references and give them an updated copy of your resume as well as the relevant job posting. Keep them apprised of any specific skills you think make you a good fit for the job or anything else you would like them to speak to the potential employer about to help your case.
When to submit references
Unless otherwise requested, job references should be submitted later in the hiring process. “I encourage applicants only to submit references after they have been asked,” Venne says.
Shane agrees that you shouldn’t submit references with the resume. “Your reference list should be included in your portfolio and brought to job interviews, at which time they can be presented upon request,” he says.
Express your gratitude
Your references are doing you a favor that can help you land your next job. Shane offers the following tips for thanking your references:
- Whenever you leave a position, send your former supervisor a note thanking him for your association.
- Send your references a card during the holidays. The more personal contact you have with them, the more favorable they will feel toward you.
- Remember that giving a reference takes time. If you plan to use these references over the years, give something in return. For instance, each time your reference supports you with a prospective employer, send a thank-you letter.