Human resource people tell me a good reference can make or break a job applicant, but many of those vying for jobs seem to give their references little or no consideration.
With that in mind, here are some tips for getting the most out of your references:
1. Contact the reference. Make sure you have current addresses, phone numbers and e-mails for each person you give as a reference. Ask them how they would like to be contacted and if it's OK to give his or her name to companies. (You'd be surprised how many people don't do this.) If possible, meet with the reference in person. This also gives you a chance to strengthen the connection.
2. Provide the best reference. You don’t have to just give the names of people who worked with you. Perhaps you volunteer at an organization that allows you to be creative – and you would like a new employer to see this side of you. Or perhaps a client saw your ability to handle difficult customers well while providing top-notch service. Consider the job requirements and what skills you want highlighted and use a reference that best plays up those aspects.
3. Know what will be said. Don’t be shy about finding out what each reference will say about you. This should be done diplomatically – remind the reference of projects you worked on, your contribution and how that would be important to the new employer. Prospective employers might ask about your ability to work in teams, how dependable you were, if you were liked and respected by co-workers, if you were self-directed and if you completed projects. Ask the reference what they consider your strengths and your weaknesses for these kinds of issues. Then gently try to put a positive spin on any deficits. Avoid taking anything personally.
4. Keep references informed. Once you think you’ve got a good shot at a job, let the reference know a call may be coming. Let them know the position, the company, and what skills are needed. That way, the reference can couch responses to fit the criteria. It’s also a good idea to supply the reference with a current copy of your resume. Make sure you stress how their reference is critical to you getting the job.
One thing to keep in mind: You're much more likely to get a favorable review from a reference if you've networked effectively with them. That means you've let them know how your career has progressed, and stayed in contact with former employees, bosses and co-workers several times a year through e-mail or phone calls.
At the same time, make sure you've offered to serve as a reference for them if you feel comfortable with it. (A good reference is more likely when it is mutually beneficial.) Finally, whether you land the offer or not, be sure and let the reference know the outcome of your job search. And if a sterling recommendation helps you land the job of your dreams, take that person out to celebrate.