Reference Etiquette 101
If you’re in the market for a new position, never underestimate the power of references. Experts today point out that the process of contacting, prepping, and updating your references could take as much--if not more--time as other parts of job search, such as writing your résumé and cover letter or preparing for an interview.
It’s no surprise that references are important--everyone who has ever filled out a job application knows that. Whether the spot you covet is working the line at Johnny’s House of Hamburgers or running the front-of-house team at Chez Très Upscale, references can be the make-or-break factor that determines whether or not you’re offered your dream job.
But candidates often drastically underestimate the amount of time, thought, and attention they should pay to the reference process. Because jobseekers have little control over what their past employers, professors, or mentors will actually say when contacted by a prospective employer, a sense of helplessness can sometimes lead to inaction. As a result, many candidates initiating a job search do little more than drop a brief “heads-up” e-mail to their references, figuring that they have little else to do with the process.
In truth, virtually every aspect of your interaction with your references can impact the outcome of the process. According to Michael Laskoff, job search expert and author of A Survival Guide for the Recently Unemployed, carefully managing the way you select, approach, and communicate with your references is one of the best things you can do to ensure a successful outcome to your job search. Here are a few tips to help guide the process:
- Pick your references carefully. Select those most relevant to the position you’re seeking and--let’s be frank--those who are most likely to have the highest opinion of you. Begin by making a list of all possible references and gradually winnow it down to four or five who you think will be the best bets.
- Skip references that may harbor mixed feelings towards you. If you never really “clicked” with the general manager at the resort property you consider the high point of your résumé, it may be best to list that kindly shift manager who was your direct supervisor instead.
- Establish a tone of communication with your selected references that is warm and personable, humble and sincere. Initiate the process with a phone call or visit personally requesting permission to include them on your reference list. Schedule enough time for this task so that you won’t be rushed--spend some time chit-chatting and catching up, showing sincere interest in their life and accomplishments since you last spoke.
- Avoid asking references to embellish or exaggerate about your past performance. At best, this will make them uncomfortable, and nervousness and hesitation are likely to peek through during a reference interview. At worst, it could prompt them to bow out of the process altogether, not to mention inflicting damage to your relationship.
- It’s okay to make a few gentle suggestions. On the other hand, it’s perfectly reasonable--helpful, even--to give your references a few pointers. Tell them a bit about the kind of position you’re seeking and hash over a few highlights or achievements that you think might be pertinent. That Waiter of the Year award you won five years ago may have slipped your boss’ mind!
- Always say thanks. When you’re firmly ensconced in your new position, make it a point to thank each of your references for their time and effort. A handwritten thank-you note is your best bet. A gift along the line of flowers, candy, or tickets to a local sporting event is even better, especially for references with whom you have a lengthy personal history. Besides, you never know how long it will be until you need them to vouch for you again!