References: Don’t Get Caught Without Backup!

Sam was clean and polished, and he made sure he arrived at the interview on time – not too early, certainly not late. He had thought through answers to a hundred potential interview questions, and he was sure he was ready for anything. Things began swimmingly. He was charming and polite, and he had researched the job and the company enough to know what the prospective employer was looking for in an employee. He was just beginning to think the job was in the bag when the interviewer asked to see his references.

“References? Uh, well, uh . . . Can I send them to you?”

This is a scenario you want to avoid.

People make a number of mistakes with regard to their references. They may send them too early or, like our friend Sam, be unpreprepared when asked to supply them. Other common mistakes include using too many references, or too few, or the wrong references, or giving too little information about them, or too much.

You may be inclined to use a neighbor, or a family friend, or even your clergy person, but these are personal references and they don’t carry as much weight as professional references. Employers do not want to hear what a nice person you are. They want to hear that you are competent and hardworking and have the skills to do the job. And, of course, this is most likely to come from someone with whom you’ve worked.

You will need at least three references, and no more than five or six. Supervisors and managers are the best people to list as references; or teachers, if you’ve recently completed school. It’s also acceptable to use people with whom you’ve done business: a banker, a customer, or a colleague. You may even use people you’ve supervised, although it would be best to at least lead with someone who supervised you.

Choose people who are likely to say great things about you with some enthusiasm and elaboration. If your last manager thinks you can leap tall buildings with a single bound, but speaks in a monotone and tends to be inarticulate, he (or she) may not be a good choice for your reference list.

Of course, you will need to contact your references in advance, and don’t be afraid to remind them of your accomplishments, and to suggest things you’d like them to highlight if they get a call. For example, if you previously worked in retail management but are applying for a position in human resources, it’s okay to ask your references to emphasize the HR aspects of your job. Also, it’s not a bad idea to ask an employer when you leave a job if you may have a letter of recommendation. Even if your leaving was awkward or unpleasant, if there’s someone in the company with whom you’ve remained on positive terms, ask that person for a letter. This will give you something constructive to show a future employer if there are any questions about why you left. Hold on to these letters, and be prepared to give copies to an interviewer if the subject comes up. If the letters are particularly glowing, you may want to incorporate brief quotes from them in your resume and/or cover letter.

In most cases, it’s preferable to leave your references off your resume. You are likely to be sending your resume to a number of people, and it’s not a good idea to invite someone to conact your references until you’ve established a mutual interest with an employer, usually during an interview. There are exceptions, of course. The curriculum vitae, normally used by people in higher education and health care, often includes references at the end.

Once you have a list of references, you need to organize them and present them in a professional manner. They should be listed on one page, either an e-file or a separate sheet of paper, with your name and address at the top, and the title of the page should read: Professional References, followed by the references themselves. Lead with the most positive and impressive. People often contact one or two references and leave it at that, so you want them calling your best first.

When listing a reference, include the name, making sure it is spelled correctly; the person’s title; the person’s place of employment; an address (either business or home); his or her business phone, home phone, and/or mobile; and an e-mail address.

Always bring your references with you to an interview. If the interviewer asks for your references, you’ll be prepared. If he or she does not, I recommend you end the interview by offering them. You may say, “Thank you for your time. Before I leave, I’d like to give you a list of my references. If you have any questions, I hope you’ll feel free to contact them.”

If other candidates are interviewing for the same position, you’re the one who left something behind, and you’re the one who invited the employer to check up on you. This is a very confident, professional gesture, and it’s sure to make you stand out from other applicants.

~ Anne Follis, CPRW

© Copyright 2010, Anne Follis. All rights reserved.

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