References: What are they saying?

Recently, I had an instance where I was checking someone’s references, that they had provided to me, and this person’s references didn’t have anything good to say about them… (and this is not even close to the first time this has happened). This got me thinking – do people know what their references are saying about them? I think most people do, but if you are just giving someone the names and contact info of random co-workers and supervisors, you may be taking the wrong approach. That begs the question though: how do you put together a list of reliable references? I think there are three easy ways to go about this, and if you want to prepare yourself well for the future, I would start doing this on Day 1 of your first job.

1.) Ask co-workers and supervisors who you know well AND who know you well.

This isn’t brain-surgery – the best answer is the most obvious one. If you become close with someone at work, or you have a great working relationship with a colleague, ask them if they would consider providing a reference for you should the need arise. You don’t have to wait until you’re looking for a job in order to put together a list of references…in fact, that’s definitely not an ideal time to be thinking about who can vouch for you.

2.) If you are part of a team that accomplishes something special, find people in that group who are familiar with your contributions.

The key part here is “people who are familiar with your contributions”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve checked a reference on someone and the reference doesn’t really know what the person did or what they were responsible for. In a technical field, your references need to be able to speak to your technical abilities and in order to do that, the people providing a reference for you need to have seen you in action, first-hand.

3.) Get Creative.

Your references need to be professional-level (i.e. not a friend or your mom) but within that realm there are options. For instance, if you worked closely with an outside vendor, or you have a professor from college who can speak to your abilities, it is perfectly OK to list people like this as references. In other words, the reference does not have to be someone who worked at the same company as you, they just have to be a professional contact. Again, the key is that they have to be able to speak to your specific skills and abilities.

Stay in Contact and Maintain the Relationship

Once you have a list of references that you are comfortable with – keep in touch with those people. It doesn’t have to be every week or even every month, just stay in touch in some way. You need your references to care about you as a person because at some point, they may hold the key to the outcome of a job search. If there does come a time when you need those references, give those people a call and make sure they know to expect a reference call. This will ensure that your references have at least started thinking about you and what they have to say about you.

OK – But How Do I Know?

If you have a list of references, but you’re still not convinced that the people you have listed have good things to say about you, then have someone check your references! Obviously you are probably not going to want people calling your current supervisors and co-workers, but if you have references from previous companies or from vendors, you can check those anytime. If you are actively looking and a recruiter asks you if they can check your references early-on in the process, take advantage because that will be a useful litmus test, in a number of ways. For one, if your references are outstanding, the recruiter can use that to throw extra weight behind your resume. When talking to the hiring manager of a company they can say, “Mr./Mrs. Hiring Manager, I have checked references on _____ and their references are outstanding.” This will help get you to the next step of the hiring process. Second, If the references are not great, the recruiter will let you know and then you can make adjustments early, instead of finding out bad news when you were hoping for a job-offer.

As with everything, planning and foresight only makes things better for you in the long-run. Put a little effort into building a reference list now will benefit you down the road and could make a huge difference in your ultimate career path.

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