Tips for Building a Strong Reference List

Deborah Swerdlow

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When a hiring manager asks for your references, it’s usually a sign that you’ve made it to the final stages of the interview process. And at this point, you want your references to seal the deal for you, not give the hiring manager pause. But how do you ensure that it goes your way?

Below are three tips to build a strong reference list. But first, a few reference basics:

  • Create a separate references list. You have limited space on your resume with which you can demonstrate your qualifications, and listing your references in that valuable real estate won’t help you show your potential value to the hiring organization.
  • When an organization asks for two or three references, don’t offer them four or five. They most likely will only reach out to the two or three that they asked for, and by adding others to the mix, you’re making them guess which references are your strongest.
  • When an employer asks for certain types of references (manager, colleague, professor, etc.), follow whatever instructions they give you; there’s probably a good reason for it and not following a simple direction can hurt your chances.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s move on to the tips.

Choose references who can speak to a variety of your skills

Your reference list should always include at least one direct supervisor, if not more. That’s because a direct supervisor usually knows the most about your job performance, which is what a hiring manager wants to hear about.

If your current boss doesn’t know you’re job searching, you need to list at least one supervisor from a previous job. Next, consider listing a current coworker who you trust to be discreet about your job search. That way, the hiring manager can still talk to someone who is familiar with your current work.

To round out your list, consider the skills and roles you’ve had that are most relevant to the job for which you’re applying. If you’d be managing someone in the new job, ask one of your previous direct reports to be a reference. If you would be planning galas and other major fundraisers, ask someone with whom you collaborated on an event-planning committee.

Choosing the right references

If your references are going to seal the deal on a job offer, they need to be more than good; they need to be great. You want references who will rave about your job performance, your work ethic, your dedication, and any other relevant skills or traits. That’s what makes a hiring manager eager and excited to offer you the job, and it can put you over the edge if they are checking references for the top two candidates.

How can you make sure you’ll get a strong reference? First, avoid asking anyone who has witnessed a serious issue with your job performance, such as consistently low-quality work or an unwillingness to change in response to feedback. Similarly, if you left a job on bad terms, think twice about listing your manager from that job. They could harbor negative emotions about how things ended, which could jeopardize your reference.

Then, when you’re ready to ask someone to be a reference, be sure to connect with them before passing along their contact info. Start with something simple and straightforward like, “Can I count on you as a job reference to offer a recommendation and vouch for my work?” instead of “Can I list you as a reference?”

Sometimes people reflexively agree to serve as a reference, without thinking about whether they can give you the kind of strong, glowing reference that you’ll need to get a job. “Can I count on you as a job reference to offer a recommendation and vouch for my work?” encourages them to pause and think about the kind of recommendation they’ll give so you can make sure you’re getting a strong one.

Stay in touch

Once you’ve confirmed that a reference will say great things about you, staying in touch with them can help keep those references strong. Just like networking, the key is to stay connected in ways that strengthen your relationship, such as reaching out when you see your reference quoted in a positive news article, sharing new things you’re working on that may be of interest to them, or genuinely connecting in person every now and then. Each time you reach out, you’ll be deepening your relationship and reinforcing their positive feelings about you.

It’s also important to keep your references posted on your job search so they are ready for a hiring manager’s call. You don’t need to tell your references about every job you apply to because not all of them will result in an interview and reference-checking. Rather, wait until a hiring manager asks for your references list and then alert your references that they may be contacted.

Send them a link to the job posting, any relevant information about the job, such as why you’re interested or the skills that you think are most relevant to the position, and your updated resume. All of this information will help your references give you a strong recommendation.

And finally, let your reference know how it all goes!

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Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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