References and Your Job Search: Dos and Don’ts

You submitted your job application, interviewed with the company, and now they are asking for references. Are you prepared? More importantly, are they prepared? If you’ve reached the final stages of the interview process alongside other candidates, providing references who sing your praises can give you the final edge you might need to land the job. If all other factors are equal, who would you rather hire—the candidate whose references seem ambivalent or the one whose references gush with enthusiasm?

Job ReferencesEven if you don’t end up in this exact scenario (and even if you aren’t actively searching for a job), having strong references lined up is simply good practice. We’ve written about how crucial networking is for your job search, and maintaining relationships with references falls under that umbrella. When you get ready to assemble your list of references, keep these principles in mind:


    • Ask permission

You should always let your references know whether or not you plan to use them in your job search. If you don’t alert them to a potential reference check, not only will they be unprepared to speak to your performance and character, but it will also leave a bad impression on the reference checker.

    • Select carefully

Be sure that the people you select to speak on your behalf can provide a solid and relevant testimonial to your abilities. Your references are your personal evangelists, so make them count. Don’t ask any former (or current) employer if they don’t know you well and cannot attest to your work. Having a CEO serve as your reference may seem like a great idea, but it won’t carry much weight if they’ve never worked with you directly.

    • Keep them updated

If your references are people you worked with previously, be sure to provide them with up to date information including a recent resume, cover letter, and information about current goals and reasons for applying to the job in question. If your references have no idea about what you’ve been up to or what your goals are, it will be harder for them to convince the caller that the job is a strong fit.

    • Find out what type of reference they’ll give

When approaching your references, you can ask whether or not they are safe to use as references. Generally people will decline to serve as a reference if they don’t feel that they can help your cause. As Alison Green writes, “unless your former boss is crazy or malicious, she’s unlikely to be so committed to thwarting your job search that she’d lie to you about this.”

    • Say thank you

This should go without saying, but don’t forget to express gratitude. Providing references can be time-consuming and, while many are happy to do it, they have no obligation to do so. Let them know you appreciate their time and willingness to vouch for you.


    • Use the same references for every job

Just like you should tailor your resume and cover letter to every job, you should also choose relevant references. If you are applying for a job as a financial analyst, choose someone who knows about your analytical skills. A finance executive will probably not want to hear from a supervisor for a former lifeguarding gig.

    • Use a family member or friend

Even if you are really scraping the bottom of the barrel to find a reference, don’t use a personal acquaintance. Employers don’t value these types of references for myriad reasons, mainly that they can’t speak to your professional strengths and they are obviously biased.

    • Give a fake reference

Similar to the last point, even if you are desperate to find a reference—any reference—avoid the fake reference route. There are plenty of stories of people using their friends as references or even services who give fake references. With all the online resources available now for background research (Facebook, LinkedIn), any employer who is diligent about hiring can spot a bogus reference. Even if you get away with it in the short-run, chances are you might get caught somewhere down the line. Most importantly? It’s dishonest.

While it takes some effort to create and maintain your network of references, the pay-off is well worth it when it comes to your job search. The bottom line is to be upfront, communicative, and appreciative of your references. Follow the golden rule—you will likely be serving as a reference in the future for somebody else, so treat your references the way you’d like to be treated.

Do you have any dos and don’ts to add to the list? Share them below!