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How to Make Smart Choices When Choosing Your Job References


Having strong references can mean the difference between hearing, “You’re hired!” and hearing nothing but dreaded silence. I’ve often covered the most appropriate methods of acquiring references, including asking permission, providing them with information about the position, and keeping them up-to-date with the overall process. This methodology is great if you already know who your references are, but where do you begin when you’re not even sure who to ask?


(Photo Credit: Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock)

The process of landing any job is relatively simple, yet delicate. Think of it as a garden: You plant a seed, provide it water and sun, and then you’re rewarded with beautiful blooms. Too much or too little water or sun, however, results in failure — or at least a delay. References should be viewed as one of those elements that could disrupt or even ruin an otherwise successful pursuit of a job opportunity.

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So what’s the best way to find references who will help you find success? My answer is simple: Think “S.M.A.R.T.”

  • Substantial. As you peruse your list of potential references, ask yourself if a the person has enough substance. When they get that phone call from a recruiter or hiring manager, what will they be able to say about you? A great reference should be able to convey that you are a great fit for the job, not just any job … and they should be able to back up their belief with an answer containing substance.
  • Memorable. While pursuing highly credentialed references in itself is not necessarily a win, it is important to think about how your reference will be perceived. If you’re applying for a position within a college, what better way to make a statement than to have a tenured professor provide a reference for you? Of course, this may not be possible in all cases, however never miss an opportunity to display strong ties within the industry to which you’re applying.
  • Arranged. Be cognizant about the type of reference you’re submitting to a potential employer. If you’ve done your homework, your references can/should be arranged into categories. These categories should be leveraged strategically to create a complementary group — you wouldn’t want all three references to come from the same/similar angle. You may have one reference who has more of an educational or mentor-type understanding of you (former professor or advisor) or someone who understands and can vouch for your character (a colleague or friend). In either case, always remember that there isn’t a “one size fits all” reference.
  • Reflective. Remember that anyone who you select to be your reference will be an indirect reflection of you. If the position for which you’re applying will require an outgoing, boisterous personality, a stereotypically introverted software engineer may not be best person to transmit your fluency as a sales executive.
  • Time. If asked, ideally every one of your potential references will say yes to your request, however you should take their commitment into consideration. If this person agrees to be your reference, will they actually take the time to provide feedback? Are there circumstances that may make this particular ask difficult for this person? Perhaps and upcoming event (wedding/birth of a child), increased seasonal work travel, or one of the many other things that pops up in people’s lives. If they fall into this category, think about holding off.

Being “smart” with your choices will help you find great references. As with all things, every situation will vary, and there may be other, equally important things to consider. That said, the underlying message is that solid references will never hurt your chances of getting that job, but poor choices will almost always derail the opportunity.

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How do you choose your references? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Michelle Kruse
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