This morning, I had a conversation with a friend — a former coworker from a previous job — whom I listed as one of my references. He told me that he had a good conversation with a gentleman with whom I recently interviewed (whether or not I get the job remains to be seen). This friend has been invaluable throughout my job search, and I told him that I would get him a bottle of Scotch to say thank you once I landed.
It got me thinking: when it comes to advice about the job hunt, one topic that is almost never discussed are your references. Nearly every prospective employer asks for them, yet they are almost never mentioned when talking about the job hunt. I’ve read plenty of books and articles, and attended a number of SQL Saturday presentations, that talk about resumes, interview questions, how to dress, and so on. But it occurred to me that not one of them — including my own presentation (and I might need to rectify that) — talks about your references.
So, what should you consider when asking for people to serve as references? Here are my thoughts.
- Make sure people are willing to serve as references. You want to make sure that you find people who are willing to speak on your behalf. Don’t list people as your references unless they give you their permission to do so. People don’t want to be surprised when one of your potential employers contact them. It’s unprofessional, and it’s just plain impolite.
Speaking of which, the people I asked to serve as my references did request that I let them know any time that I dropped their names as references. So far, I have honored that request; every time a prospective employer asked me for references, I let my references know so that they wouldn’t be surprised when or if a phone call or email from my prospective employer came.
- Get your references’ contact information. This might seem obvious, but it isn’t as straightforward as you might think. People might not want to be contacted at their work email, home phone number, and so on. When asking for references, make sure you also ask for an email and phone number where they don’t mind being contacted by a prospective employer.
- Make sure your references know you well, both personally and professionally. You don’t necessarily have to ask your best friend to serve as a reference, but these people do need to be able to talk about your personality and your work. They need to be answer questions about you when prospective employers contact them. They are an extension of your interview; they need to be able to answer questions on your behalf.
- Co-workers probably are the best references. There is nothing wrong with asking friends to serve as references, but keep in mind that prospective employers are likely to ask about your work, so they need to know you professionally as well.
For me, I had a good rapport with my former co-workers, so I had no problem with asking them for references after I was let go from my job. However, if you’re actively working and are looking to move on, you might need to be more discreet. Make sure the people you ask are ones you can trust.
Speaking of people you can trust…
- Your references need to be able to provide an honest assessment of you. Your references are like your resume. They give a prospective employer a perspective of your skills and capabilities. It’s often said that you should never lie on your resume. The same holds true of your references.
My friend asked me to discuss possible answers so that we were “on the same page.” I politely refused his request. I told him that I trusted him, and that I shouldn’t influence what he might say to a potential employer. I wanted him to provide an honest and fair assessment in his own words. If I didn’t trust him to do that, then he probably wasn’t my best pick for a reference.
Your references are often an overlooked part of your job hunt. Make sure you choose them well. They might be the difference between whether or not you get the job.