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3 Tips for Providing an Exceptional Reference


I can still recall the nervous feeling in my stomach when I made the call and then popped the question: “I’m putting in for a new position, will you be one of my references?” I didn’t receive a formal “I do,” but just like an anxious groom, I was elated to hear the voice on the other end of the line say “yes.” While it’s common to fret over how to select and ask for a reference, it can be just as nerve-racking on the other side: acting as a reference yourself.

How to Provide a Great Reference

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What does it take to be a great reference for a friend, colleague, or former employee? Agreeing to provide a reference is something that should not be taken lightly. I like to think of it along the lines of being selected as valedictorian. The person asking for the reference has determined that of their connections, your insights will be highly valued by the potential employer — that’s an awesome amount of responsibility! Luckily, there are a few things you can do to ensure that your endorsement gets the most traction.

1. Get Answers. While the onus should be on the requester, make sure you have answers to these questions: What is the job and who is the employer? Why do they believe they’re the best candidate? Do you have a current copy of their resume? What it is that they’d like you to convey? Of course, there may be other factors to consider, but understanding these key questions will ensure that you’re starting from a solid foundation.

2. Follow the 3 S’s. Be succinct. Yes, as a reference you’ll want to convey positive messages around the requester’s skillset, but remember that a recruiter is likely to have a schedule that will not allow for a sprawling, 30-minute gush after each question. Be specific. When citing examples of their accomplishments, try to have concrete examples of past work and success, otherwise your testimony may not carry as much weight. Be suitable. As you think through examples, make sure they are relevant to the position in question.

3. Prepare Yourself. No, you don’t need to stay up late, fretting about missteps and possibly pitfalls, but you should be prepared for the conversation. Be cognizant of your tone and unspoken language. Similar to a nervous or bored job seeker, an unenthusiastic or colorless reference can sink the ship for a great candidate. Think of yourself as a reflection of the person who asked for the reference. A little bit of positive excitement in one’s voice goes a long way over the phone.

Next time someone reaches out to you asking for a reference, remember that by accepting the request, you have communicated, with or without words, that you are willing to help this person in their quest for employment. While not every organization calls every reference, those who are called do have an impact on whether or not a candidate moves forward in the process or, sometimes, even gets hired. As with most things, it is also likely that this is a simple closing of one of the many circles of life. At some point in your own past, someone probably went the extra mile to provide you a reference. Don’t upset karma.

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Michelle Kruse
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