Crafting an Outstanding Reference List

Because it can be extremely challenging to find a new position in the current economy, you need to maximize your every advantage. One tool that job seekers often overlook is the reference list. Being able to put hiring managers in touch with several professionals who can speak about your strengths, work ethic and qualifications can mean the difference between landing a position and remaining on the job hunt.

When our company surveyed executives about the most unusual reference checks they had conducted, the responses were less than favorable:

  • “We talked to someone who said the applicant didn’t like the industry in which she was trying to get a job.”
  • “We learned from the reference that the woman we were interviewing liked to go barefoot all day.”
  • “The reference said the prospective employee had difficulty getting to work on time.”
  • “The reference said the candidate fell asleep during work hours.”

Here are some more reference list mistakes, as well as lessons you can learn from each.

Reference list mistake: “I checked the reference, and the fellow just started laughing. He could not believe that he was a reference.”

Lesson: Contact your references ahead of time.

Your first step should be to contact the individuals you’d like prospective employers to reach out to. Your primary goal is to make sure they are willing to speak on your behalf. Keep in mind some people may be uncomfortable with the assignment or feel they are unprepared to do so. 

Send your references a current version of your resume and a description of the job for which you applied. These materials will allow your contacts to understand what skills the employer seeks so they can describe your strengths in those areas.

Reference list mistake: “Someone used her mother as a reference.”

Lesson: Choose the right people.

When deciding whom to include on your list, consider the particular job that you’re applying for. For instance, if you’re applying for a technical support position, you want to pick professionals who can speak to your knowledge of various hardware and software configurations. If you’re applying for a position as a technical support manager, your references should speak to your managerial skills as well.

Reference list mistake: “The candidate said she’d worked for a specific company, and we found out she didn’t.”

Lesson: Honesty is the best policy.

The intense desire to land a job can lead people to stretch the truth on a resume or during the employment interview. If you’re considering doing this and think you can get away with it, think again. When a hiring manager speaks to your references, that person may hear a different story than you recounted. Also, stress to your references that they be honest when speaking to potential employers.

Reference list mistake: “The reference had never heard of the person.”

Lesson: Limit your list.

Be picky about who makes it on your reference list. Quality is more important than quantity. Most employers prefer to speak to three to five references, so there’s little need to go fishing in an attempt to identify more people than that.

Providing a strong list of references is crucial, but so is thanking the people you select, regardless of whether or not you land the position or your contact even spoke to the prospective employer. A handwritten thank you note is often all that is needed to show your appreciation. By taking this step and keeping your references updated on how your job search is progressing, you’ll maintain your network and ensure that you have a group of professionals who will go to bat for you the next time you need someone to put in a good word on your behalf.

Dave Willmer is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com.

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