Dos and don'ts for asking people to serve as a reference

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While it’s true that potential employers typically only check your references if you’re among the final round of candidates for the job, don’t go through the motions, because the quality of the references you provide could make or break your chances of getting an offer.

If it’s getting down to the wire and you are neck-in-neck competing with other candidates for the job, you want your references to be a positive differentiating factor. Don’t assume that you have the job and take the process of securing references lightly, even if you have an offer in hand pending reference checks. Employers often use reference checks as the final piece of information that informs their decision of who gets the job. Do not leave things to chance or wait till the last minute to start reaching out to people.

Here are tips for figuring out who to ask to serve as a reference and how to do so professionally in a way that preserves, rather than annoys, those important contacts.

Brainstorm a list of people to reach out to and list pros and cons

Don’t go through your phone and list the first three co-workers whose cell phone numbers you have. Choose references who are well-spoken, engaging and can highlight your strengths, said Tina Nicolai, career coach and the founder and CEO of Resume Writers’ Ink. If you were on the fence in the eyes of the potential employer, choosing the right references may swing the pendulum your way.

“Choose the ill-prepared, social reference, and you may end up losing the opportunity,” Nicolai said. “Keep in mind, your references are the final selling point to you obtaining your job. They should be your very best representatives.”

People prefer to put down their colleagues as references rather than their supervisor, because they think their peers will give a better recommendation and be more positive. However, to get hired, it’s critical to pick people who understand you and who you’ve reported to, said Alexander Wright, senior managing director of accounting and finance staffing at the Execu|Search Group.

“Clients often say, ‘I would love to hear what their supervisor has to say about them,’” Wright said. “Having someone you’ve actually reported into is critical to getting hired.

“If you don’t have that, then it can hurt you,” he said. “You need at least one person who’s been your boss.”

Don’t assume everyone will agree to serve as a reference

It may sound obvious, but make sure to ask your best contacts if they will be a reference for you before you share their name and contact information, said Donna Svei, executive resume writer, interview coach and retained search consultant.

The bottom line: Politely ask permission of your references in advance. Don't take it for granted they'll all say yes.

Only ask people you’re sure will give you a glowing reference

Assuming that everyone will speak favorably is not a guarantee. You should always make sure that the person asking to serve as a reference is going to give you a positive one, said Janet Raiffa, an investment banking career coach, the former head of campus recruiting at Goldman Sachs and a former associate director in the Career Management Center at Columbia Business School.

“You'd be surprised how many people don't realize they are asking people for references from people who will have negative things to say,” Raiffa said.

Pick people with personality who are going to be your biggest advocate and cheerleader and who can speak to your technical and soft skills, Wright said.

“If the reference really love that person like family, you can tell – it really comes through over the phone,” he said.

Be polite and don’t twist their arm

Ask your potential references to serve in that capacity well before you go in for an interview, but rather than put pressure on them, give them an out so that you haven’t boxed them in to saying something they don’t want to say or do something they’re reluctant to do, said Amy Adler, executive resume writer, career coach and the founder of Five Strengths Career Transition Experts.

You might say, “I know you’re extremely busy…” or something similar that allows them the opportunity to bow out without any awkwardness.

“This benefits you as well, as the last thing you need is a lukewarm reference,” Adler said.

Gauge their schedule and availability

Give them a heads up every time you share their name with a prospective employer and the hiring manager tells you that they plan to check your references, Svei said.

Asking for a reference also means ensuring that your references are available to speak on your behalf, Nicolai said.

“One top candidate missed out on an opportunity, as his references were traveling abroad while another was hospitalized,” she said. “Don’t take chances or make assumptions.”

Once they agree, give them the information they need – and suggestions

It's ideal to prepare a person serving as a reference by giving them an updated resume and perhaps a few bullets on what you hope they would say, according to Raiffa.

Send them a copy of the job posting you're applying for along with a summary of key points, Svei said. They might not have time to read the entire posting.

“Offer to talk with them about the opportunity before they talk with your prospective employer,” she said.

Once you have their permission, then feel free to describe the role for which you’re interviewing, Adler said. You might also refresh their memory about the specific incidents and accomplishments you want them to focus on that will support application.

Follow up in a polite way

“Thank them every time they take a call on your behalf,” Svei said. “Let them know whether or not you got a job offer and thank them again.”

Photo credit: Hero Images/GettyImages

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