I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve received asking me to provide a reference for a former colleague. The colleague listed me as one of her professional references, but the phone call from the employer was the first I’d heard of it.
Calls like this catch me off guard, and I have to recall what it was like to work with that person — it may have been several years ago. I hesitate and fumble with my words for a few minutes, which no doubt leaves a poor impression on the hiring manager, on the other end of the line.
If my former colleague had let me know ahead of time, I could have been more prepared to give a first-class recommendation. Don’t make the same mistake with your references.
Let’s discuss the right way to ask for and manage your references, starting with these tips:
- Make a list of potential professional references
For professional references, stick to people you’ve worked with like supervisors from internships, key co-workers, or those you’ve supervised. Anyone who is familiar with your work ethic and professional attitude can make a great reference.
If you don’t have much work experience, you can choose academic references like professors who are familiar with your work. Just ensure you align appropriate references for specific skills the positions you’re applying for require.
- Choose carefully
Choose people whom you know will speak well of you. For example, if you have a supervisor whom you left on bad terms, you may not want to use him as a reference. Instead, choose someone else you worked closely with at that organization who can speak to your positive attributes, character and accomplishments.
- Reach out nicely
Invite each of your ideal professional references to join you for coffee or lunch, especially if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen them. If you’re on a limited time budget, ask if you can use them as a reference through a phone call. Make your initial request more personal, so use email as a last resort.
Connecting personally with each of your references will place you closer to the forefront of their minds so if they receive a call from your potential employer, they won’t struggle to recall something nice to say about you.
- Make it easy
Give your reference all of the information they need to make their recommendation easy. Share the position you’re applying for and the skills you’d like to highlight. Send them a copy of your resume and a short list of what you worked on together, to jog their memory.
Don’t make it sound like a script. Make it personal. That’s why meeting in person is your best bet. You can retell stories and laugh about experiences you shared while working together.
- Create a simple, effective reference list
Once you have collected your references, compile them into a document that matches the style of your resume and cover letter. Along with each reference’s name, include a title, organization name, department, phone number, email, and a short sentence that explains how you worked together.
Have your professional references list ready to provide at an interview, but don’t volunteer it unless the employer asks. Each time you give out your references list, let your references know they may receive a call soon, and provide them with the name of whom they can expect to hear from.
- Thank your references
Keep your references updated on your progress. They’re cheering you on, after all. If you land the job, receive a call back or don’t get selected, let them know. No matter the outcome, send them a thank you note expressing your appreciation for their support.
Reaching out to professionals from your past can be scary. Don’t let that stop you. If you know someone who you think can provide you with a positive professional reference, reach out to them. The worst that can happen is they say “no,” in which case, you can move on and find someone else who will support you. You encounter hundreds of people in your professional life, and even as a student. You’ll find someone willing to sing your praises.