Professional References: Line Them Up Early to Avoid a Job Search Misstep

job seeker frustrated at computer

You’ve made it this far.

Your resume landed you the job interview.

You went through a few interview rounds and dazzled each person with your company knowledge and stories about past work experience.

Finally, you get the call saying, “We’re very interested in you as a candidate. Could you please provide a list of professional references we can contact?”

Oops! You were so busy applying for jobs and preparing for interviews that you forgot to line up your references. Is it the end of the world? No. You could throw something together pretty quickly, but here’s why this step deserves a bit more forethought.

You want your references to be fully informed of your job search and ready to sing your praises when the time comes. They should have a general idea of the type of work you’re looking for and what kind of details would be beneficial to a prospective employer. Failure to tell someone you’re using them as a reference could hinder your job search, especially if the individual responds with, “Hmmm, I don’t remember him/her.” Help your references help YOU by giving them all the relevant information.

Choosing Professional References

Ideally, you want to target people who can give specific examples that highlight you as a prime candidate (sorry, no friends or family!). These can relate to your overall knowledge of the field, your work ethic, your leadership style, your technical aptitude, etc. It’s okay to choose multiple people from the same company, but try to include a variety of job levels/functions. For example, choose a peer, a manager, and a colleague from a different department.

Reach out to each individual at the start of your job search to ask if they are willing to serve as a reference and to confirm their contact information. It can sometimes take a week or more to hear back from people, so don’t put yourself in a situation where you’re scrambling at the last minute. Plus, some companies ask for reference information up front as part of the job application (though they won’t reach out until later in the hiring process). Here’s a sample script you can use…

“Hi Marlon, I hope things are going well for you. I’m currently looking for a new <role> position in the <location> area. Since we worked closely at ABC Company, I was wondering if you’d be open to serving as a reference for me. I think you could provide valuable insight into my background and ability to manage multiple projects with strict deadlines. Let me know if it’s ok to include you on my reference list and please confirm the best email address and phone number. Thanks for your support!”

Conducting a stealth job search? Add a sentence such as, “My current employer doesn’t know I’m looking for a new role, so I appreciate you keeping my search confidential.”

Creating Your Reference List

Here’s how to put all the pieces together to create your reference list:

  • Put your contact information at the top using the same format from your resume
  • Type “References” or “Reference List” below your contact info as a header
  • Aim for 3-5 professional references (no friends/family)
  • On separate lines, add the contact’s full name, current organization, current job title, preferred phone number, and preferred email address
  • It’s also helpful to include a 1 sentence note explaining how/where you worked with each other (ex. “Linda reported to me for three years at X Company”). This is especially beneficial if the person has switched companies or retired since you worked together.
Don’t Forget to Follow-Up

When you get to the final interview round and are told the company will be contacting your references, reach out to each person on your list to give them a heads up. This ensures they’ll be expecting a phone call or can check their junk folder for any lost email correspondence. They can also take a moment to consider talking points related to the skills for this particular new role.

Is your reference list ready to go? For personalized job search support, email [email protected] to set-up an introductory phone call. We can help you create a job search strategy, craft your resume, or prepare for an upcoming interview.