professional references

Are you prepared to provide a potential employer with professional references? Do your references have everything they need to provide a supportive, specific and effective review of your work? Part of any strong personal brand includes references that describe you and your work in ways that align both with your branding messages and the specific needs of your target employers.

Years ago, references were often handled through a one-page letter that a manager wrote for a departing or former employee. Often these letters were very flattering to the employee (‘Chris is a great worker.’ ‘Wang Wei was the best on the team.’ ‘Liam always arrived on time.’ ‘Karol was diligent.’), but these letters were not very specific about the skills or accomplishments of the employee. They were often full of empty statements and ineffective superlatives.

Hiring managers and HR professionals expect more from references now. They want specific examples of your work, skills and accomplishments and how your work style ties to your accomplishments. Employers need to be confident that you are qualified for the work they are considering hiring you to do. Your job is to prepare your references to send the right messages for you.

Through preparation and guidance, you can deliver precisely what a potential employer needs to know. Here are a few suggestions:

identify potential references

Identify individuals who will be meaningful reference sources for you. In many cases, these are the same people that you would think to meet with for networking purposes. As you conduct your search, keep these individuals updated with your search focus and where you are interviewing. People who know, like and trust you (such as your professional references) will likely also go to bat for you if they know someone who works at the organization where you are interviewing.

Overall, you want to select references who know your work well and with whom you had a direct reporting relationship. Finding references that have a grasp on different aspects of your work will also be an advantage. And, references with whom you’ve had long relationships or maintained a relationship long after a work situation has ended are optimal.

Your first considerations might be former managers and supervisors, which are good options. Hiring managers and HR professionals make talking with your former managers a priority. However, you can also consider others, rather than limiting your list of references to only previous managers. For example, you might have contacts for previous or current volunteer work. Perhaps you worked on a committee with a professional association and can ask the committee chair to be a reference. If you were self-employed, there may be a variety of people who can comment on the value you brought to the team or company.

In some situations, you might reach out a former colleague to whom you did not directly report, but with whom you worked frequently, as is often the case on cross-functional or cross-department projects and collaboration initiatives. If former managers or project leads are not an option for you, consider others with whom you have built strong workplace relationships. Perhaps a vendor or even a customer can be a strong reference for you. If you are a recent graduate, you may opt for a professor or mentor who knows you well. Remember, the important factors in selecting references are their depth of knowledge about your experience and their ability to comment on your accomplishments and how you approach your work.

Be aware that some companies prohibit employees from providing references for anyone or may limit the information that human resources can provide to potential employers. Shareable information is typically limited to dates of employment, title, salary and eligibility for rehire. Be prepared to explain the limitation to a potential employer when they ask for references. They will understand that some companies prohibit references, but they will expect you to have more relationships to draw upon.

related content: finding opportunity in a crowded job search

create talking points and value messages

Once you identify potential references, it is time to outline what you want them to say about you. This is not the same as providing them a script to follow. It’s important to ensure your references understand your job search focus and can comment on relevant accomplishments and skills related to the jobs you are pursuing. This way, a hiring manager or HR professional can make connections between your past work and your future potential.

One goal is to remind your references about specific projects or accomplishments that occurred during your time with them. Make a list of the tasks, skills, projects and requirements of the jobs you are pursuing. Plan to share these with your references so that they can connect aspects of your past work with the needs of your next position. You can talk to your references about your work style and how you see it fitting well with the demands of the positions you are targeting. For example, you can let the references know that your can-do attitude is an important factor in completing difficult projects and working toward solutions for problems. By helping references tie your accomplishments, skills and traits together, their messages about your work will be relevant and in line with the needs of your future employer.

Making specific connections about your past to your future is even more important when you are changing fields or industries – which is the case with many job seekers today given the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on certain industries. Maximizing messages about your transferable skills will help bridge the gap of experience related to the new work. Your transferable skills might be job related, such as digital marketing skills or data analysis. Or, the transferable skills might be related to your traits, such as your ability to lead even when not in charge or the ability to find solutions to tough problems. Your future employer needs to hear that you have the skills required to learn the new position, even if your work experience may not be a direct match.

related content: reinvent your career with transferrable skills and traits

reach out to your references

When you have a list of references and an understanding of what they should focus on when talking to hiring managers and HR professionals, the next step is to reach out to your reference contacts. First, set up a time to talk to your contact personally; do not handle this via email or text. During this conversation, update your contact on your job search progress and the positions you are pursuing. Ask if they are willing to serve as your reference during your job search. If they’re open to it, help them understand what you see as the primary ways your experience supports your consideration as a candidate for the positions you are pursuing. Be specific about what they should focus on as it relates to your experience. 

At the point in the hiring process when you anticipate needing the reference soon (or immediately), reach out quickly to your references and let them know when they should expect to hear from the company. Double check that they will be available and not traveling or otherwise unreachable. If possible, offer advanced notice or a few flexible time options to your references. Provide information about the company and the job, along with key messages you want them to focus on. You might share the job description if you have one. You can also say, ‘In this job, I’d be doing X, Y and Z. It would be great if you could comment on A, B and C because it directly relates to the company’s needs.’

Whether or not you receive a job offer, thank your references for taking time out of their busy schedules to speak about your work experience and qualifications for future roles. A simple thank you can be sent via an email or LinkedIn message, or you may consider adding more of a personal touch with a handwritten note.

add linkedin to the mix

Remember to include your LinkedIn profile in your professional reference efforts as well. You can request a recommendation from your connections – those with whom you’ve worked or reported to. Follow the ideas above on providing the connection with an update on your focus and goals so that they can comment on specific aspects of your experience that will be important to your next employer.

On LinkedIn, recommendations work well for many different types and levels of working relationships. Be sure to write recommendations for others with whom you have enjoyed working. This might mean writing recommendations for a former manager, co-worker, vendor, customer and others.

References are a vital part of the hiring process, especially in today’s crowded job market. A reference check is often one of the last steps in the process – and with the right references, you can stand out from other final candidates. Follow the ideas here to ensure you have strong references who can be true assets when it comes time for a job offer. And, remember, having strong references is another way you demonstrate your value and the strength of your professional brand to potential employers.

Submitted by:
Kimberly Schneiderman

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