Job seekers are free to toot their own horns on résumés and cover letters. So for a slightly less subjective opinion, hiring managers may turn to candidates’ references.
“The purpose of the reference, more than anything, is to judge somebody’s professionalism and behavior,” says Ryan Sutton, district president at global staffing firm Robert Half. “References can really help check your math, so to speak, and check your decision-making process and make sure you didn’t miss anything.”
Although you may feel as though the reference-checking process is out of your control, there are a few steps you can take to increase your chances of receiving a favorable review.
Build A Strategic List
In general, recruiters do prefer references from former managers. “We’re going to expect that they’ll be able to talk to your strengths and your weaknesses as they would relate to the potential position,” says J.T. O’Donnell, the founder and CEO of Work It Daily. “A close second is going to be peers, especially peers who are highly successful in their own rite.”
Without many former managers or colleagues to choose from, candidates just starting out in their careers may feel as though they’re at a disadvantage. But Sutton insists that recent graduates can still turn to former professors or supervisors from extracurricular activities, such as internships, sports teams or volunteer experiences.
While job descriptions frequently call for a minimum of two references, Sutton recommends asking as many people as possible if they would be willing to speak on your behalf. This, however, does not mean you should include all of their names and contact information on your résumé.
Instead, build up a “toolbox,” as Sutton calls it, a master list of all those willing to vouch for you. Then, when a potential employer asks for your reference list, you can provide a customized version that only includes those individuals who can best speak to your skills that are most relevant for the job at hand. Take it one step further by asking the hiring manager who they might be most interested in speaking with. By putting the ball in his or her court, you can both prevent unhelpful reference checks and demonstrate that you have a history of productive professional relationships.
If a recruiter asks you to provide a reference from your current manager, O’Donnell recommends asking if he or she can wait until the final offer stage so you have time to secure the job and break the news to your boss.
Keep In Touch
When asking someone to serve as a reference, a phone call works better than an email. “Either the person’s going to be really enthusiastic over the phone and you’re going to know that they’d be good, or you’re going to hear some kind of reservation,” says O’Donnell. Not only can a conversation give you insight into what a potential reference might say to a hiring manager, but it’s also a chance to network with past colleagues who may know of other job opportunities for which you might be a fit.
As you reach out, keep in mind that some companies have policies that may preclude managers from accepting your reference requests. “Your previous employer and current employer may only be able to verify dates of employment and title of role and that’s it,” says Sutton. “It’s not about you.” These sorts of protocols are becoming increasingly more common, especially at large corporations.
After the initial ask, it is essential to stay in touch. Let your references know whenever you hand over their information, and ask them to tell you if a potential employer reaches out. It is equally important to keep them informed about every position for which you apply so they know what kinds of questions to expect. “You never want them to be blindsided,” O’Donnell warns. Provide any and all background information well in advance of your references’ calls, which will likely occur sometime between the final interview and the offer stage.
Show Your Appreciation
How you follow up with a reference may depend on the nature of your relationship with the person. But O’Donnell maintains that the rule of thumb is to send a thank-you email every time someone vouches for you. When you finally accept an offer, all those who gave you a reference deserve a phone call, followed by a handwritten note. “You don’t have to go over-the-top and buy a big expensive gift,” says O’Donnell. “You just want people to know that their time and their input was worth something to you.”
Set Yourself Up For Future Success
While much of the application process may be out of your hands, you can control the attitude and work ethic you bring to the table. Leaving a supervisor with a good impression takes time and dedication, but it will ultimately give you a major advantage during future job searches. “I’ve just had so many people in my program lately who come in and have burned bridges and can’t give references at past employers that would be vital to them landing this big, wonderful opportunity they want,” says O’Donnell. “Never underestimate how important it is to manage your relationships where you work, because those people will be your references some day.”
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