5 ways references can lose you a job
Without the right people to endorse your skills, work ethic, and experience, you could be jeopardizing your dream job.
Don't let a bad reference keep you from getting the job.
Sometimes the best resume, smartest cover letter, or even the strongest interview skills are not enough to persuade an employer to hire you. To get a job, you also need people who can sing your praises, people who can attest that you’re a star employee. Put simply: You need professional references.
Unfortunately, “references are often an afterthought for job seekers,” says Andrea Kay, a career consultant based in Cincinnati.
To ensure your references present you in the best light, avoid these common mistakes.
Professional reference list mistakes to avoid
- Not asking a person for permission to list them as a reference
- Asking the wrong people to be a reference
- Not preparing your references
- Assuming your reference will give you a great review
- Forgetting to thank your references
Mistake #1: Listing someone as a reference without asking the person for permission first
Asking if someone will be a reference for you might sound like a basic step, but Kay says you’d be surprised how many job seekers forget to do it.
“A lot of people just don’t ask for permission,” Kay says. “They just assume that the person is happy to do it.” Hence, you’ll want to touch base with references before providing their contact information to a prospective employer. It’s simply common courtesy.
Mistake #2: Asking the wrong people
No doubt your mom thinks you’re a superstar, and your BFF would have your back no matter what, but alas, you can’t use friends and family members as references. After all, you’re looking for people who can speak to not only your personality, but also your career skills and work ethic.
“You want someone who you worked for, someone you worked with, or someone who worked for you,” says Stefanie Wichansky, CEO at Randolph, New Jersey-based management consulting and staffing firm Professional Resource Partners.
Ideally, you wrangle all three for your reference list. “That would give an employer a good picture of how you are as a direct report, as a co-worker, and as a manager,” Wichansky says.
If you’re going to use a previous boss as a reference, though, first check to see whether the person is allowed to talk about your job performance. “A lot of companies have strict policies that only let managers confirm a past employee’s job title and dates of employment,” says Jeff Shane, president at Allison & Taylor, a professional background screening firm based in Rochester, Michigan.
Mistake #3: Not preparing your references
Many hiring managers will let you know in advance when they’re going to contact your references. So, if possible, you should give your references a heads-up to let them know who will be contacting them, and supply them with an updated copy of your resume.
Pro tip: Share the job description with your references, so they can gain a good sense of the position you’re applying for.
Depending on how long it’s been since you held the job, you may have to refresh the person’s memory about specific projects you worked on or results you delivered that can be used as talking points.
Also, consider asking your references to speak to certain skills, such as leadership, reliability, critical thinking, communication, and teamwork. Recent research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that employers care more about these particular soft skills than they do technical abilities like reading comprehension or mathematics.
Mistake #4: Blindly assuming the person will give you a glowing review
Even though you think you were a great employee, your past manager may not feel the same way.
“Countless job seekers have been dismayed by the information that a former supervisor shares about them,” says Shane. “If an employer uncovers a negative reference, you may never hear from the company ever again.”
Therefore, if you’re even the slightest bit unsure of where you stand, ask your references ahead of time what they’re going to say about you. If they don’t plan on flattering you, take them off your references list and move on to the next person.
Mistake #5: Forgetting to send a thank-you letter
Your references are doing you a big favor. “They’re not only investing their time for you, but they’re also putting their own reputation on the line,” Kay says.
Take a few minutes to write them a thank-you email or handwritten letter. It’s a small gesture, but it can go a long way.
“If you want someone to be a good reference, you have to act like a mensch,” Kay says. “There’s no such thing as being too appreciative.”
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References are generally requested and checked after a successful interview and just before offering you a position. Often a potential employer will request a list of 3-5 people you have worked with as references. References can serve as a final confirmation of your skills, abilities and verification of positive on-the-job performance.
Below are some suggested things to consider in selecting and preparing your references:
Who Should Serve as a Reference?
- References can be individuals who know your work style, can attest to your performance, time management, punctuality, professionalism on the job and ability to do the work.
- References can be selected from a part-time or full-time job, an internship, volunteer or paid work experiences.
- References might include current or former supervisors, faculty mentors, campus staff or advisers, coaches or anyone in a professional position who can speak about your character, skills and work ethic.
- References should NOT be family, friends or peers.
- Do not choose people who are not well versed on your background and accomplishments.
- Choose people who have known you for a minimum of three months, though the longer they have known and worked with you the better.
- If you must choose between several people who know you well, select those who witnessed you in positions most related to the prospective job.
Preparing Your References
- Always ask permission from your references BEFORE you use their names. Ask if they are willing to provide a strong, supportive recommendation.
- Make sure you have current contact information (i.e., name, position, organization, email and phone number).
- Ascertain if they are available via phone or email during your critical search time.
- Prepare them in advance by sharing your current resume or CV and cover letter, and the position description.
- Be sure to thank your references after the selection process is complete; it is always best to maintain a strong, ongoing, and professional relationship.
When Submitting References
- You will need to bring at least one copy of your reference list to your interview. Some employers may ask for it before the interview.
- If an employer does not ask by the end of the interview, you should ask them if they would like reference information.
- Create a consistent and professional application packet; your list of references should have the same font, format and paper choices as those used for your resume and cover letter.
When a Reference Letter is Requested
- There are some applications that may require a letter of recommendation (i.e., fellowships, scholarships, jobs and/or internship programs like the Washington Program and UC Center Sacramento).
- Follow the aforementioned process to identify, prepare and thank your letter writing references.
- Formally ask your references via phone, email or in-person meeting with ample time to allow them to write a letter.
- Remember—a reference can be asked about your performance, skills and abilities. They may also be asked about your interpersonal skills, leadership qualities, communication style, conflict resolution capacity, decision-making and whether you have a clear understanding of your field of study or a specific type of work.
- Any inconsistencies between what you say about yourself in an interview and a reference’s responses could eliminate you from consideration for a position.