Managing Your References

Hiring rarely happens without a reference check process. When thinking about who can provide a reference for you, think 360 degrees within your organization - above, beside, below – and outside the organization.

  • Every person inside your organization more senior than you, equal to you and more junior than you is potentially a source of reference.
  • Every subordinate, customer and supplier you interact with outside the organization is potentially a source of reference.
  • Employers will often specify the number and types of referees they require for your reference check. 

However, not everyone is a good quality reference. In the eyes of your prospective employer, a great reference comes from someone who:

  • Has known you for a sustained period of time in a professional context.
  • Knows something about both the quality of your work and the quality of your relationships and can give you a high rating in both areas.
  • Is a strong verbal communicator who can answer sometimes tricky or complicated questions about your personality, values, skills, and future potential.
  • Has no vested interest in keeping you out of the position for which you're applying - in other words, you know they want to support you in getting this job.

Before You Need References

Understand the importance of references. Employers take their hiring decisions seriously. While your interview may have wowed them, it still represents only a short period of time to get to know someone. Employers look to references to provide both reinforcement of their hiring decision AND to uncover any aspects of your suitability for the position that didn't come out in the interview. A reference check can include any of the following goals:

  • Confirm interview impressions.
  • Probe concerns identified during the interview.
  • Identify resume distortion issues such as educational or skill claims that are either a stretch or untrue.
  • Protect the employer from potential legal action or disruption down the road. For example, hiring someone with a criminal background, serious credit issues or other interpersonal problem can jeopardize the organization/department's reputation or organizational culture.
  • Improve the possibility of a "best fit" hiring decision.
  • Ensure a good psychological fit with the environment and the job.

Understand the content of a reference check. Some reference calls can last 5 minutes and check only dates and times of employment and a check of your educational credentials. Others might be 20 to 30 minutes in length and cover any or all of the following:

  • Strengths and weaknesses in relation to the required skills and knowledge of the position.
  • Accomplishments during employment period.
  • Personal and interpersonal traits - anything from absenteeism to team issues.
  • Areas needing development - a nice way of asking for the referee to provide critical feedback.
  • Reasons for leaving and willingness to rehire or work with again.
  • Strength of support for their recommendation to hire.

Understand the conclusions that can be drawn from a reference. The result of a reference check might fall into one of the following categories:

  • Hire - Absolutely no reservations.
  • Hire, but recognize there are natural weaknesses associated with the individual's strengths or needing support from more training and experience.
  • Caution: Hire ONLY if you are prepared to manage the following weaknesses.
  • Do not hire.

Understand who can act as a reference. References can fall into three broad categories - character references, academic references and workplace references. Character references can be neighbours or friends of the family or community members who are in positions of authority such as religious leaders or professionals such as doctors or lawyers. If they know you and your family, especially if their relationship with you has been over a long period of time, they can speak to your character - e.g., traits of trustworthiness, work ethic, social and moral values, ability to succeed or rebound after failure. Academic references come from teachers, professors or academic leaders who can comment on your intellectual capabilities and academic discipline. Workplace references can be best thought of as the circle of people with whom and for whom you work - either in a volunteer or paid capacity. Workplace supervisory references are most often preferred by an employer (i.e. current and past bosses).

When you leave a job, ask for a written reference, but also ask if your manager will act as a reference for you in the future. While it's a good practice to ask for a letter of reference every time you change jobs, recognize that employers who take their references seriously will not rely on the written word alone. In many cases, when a boss agrees to a written reference, they ask the employee to write the letter and they merely sign it. Get the letter for your records, write it if asked, but also ask: "Would you be prepared to provide a good recommendation for me if I need one in the future?" If they say yes, ask them for details on what they would say. If they say maybe or no, try to get feedback on their reservations. Even if you decide not to use them as a reference, the feedback will be helpful in your next position.

Compile a reference library with the following information about each of your references:

  • Contact Information: Name, Current Title, Current Employer, Current Phone Number and Email Address
  • Context: A brief statement about the context in which the person has worked with you - e.g. duration of employment, reporting relationship, nature of the work or projects
  • Prepare a  half page reference statement for your own records to remind you of some of the key elements above so that when you need to call them to ask for the reference, you can remind them of your working relationship. Key aspects to include in this summary would be:
    • Credibility of reference - how and why they are a good reference for you
    • Your strengths skills, abilities demonstrated through examples
    • Accomplishments and major contributions
    • Personal traits
    • Areas needing development
    • Reasons for leaving - "official story"

Maintain your reference library. Stay in friendly contact with your references so that you can update their contact information. Offer to reciprocate with a reference if ever they need one.

When You Need References

  • Generally, you should not provide references until you are asked for them. We recommend that you do not provide names of references when you apply for a position, unless required to do so as part of the application process. When asked for your references during the interview process, it means the employer is interested in hiring you. Before giving a standard list of references, ask the employer what types of references they are seeking and how many they would like. Set up the list on a one-page view at a glance including your letterhead at the top (i.e. that you've copied and pasted from your resume), contact information and context statement about the nature of your (work/academic) relationship. Ensure that you have selected referees that meet the criteria provided by the employer.  Your referees should be able to speak in detail about your professional experience, highlight your skills well, and speak positively about your work with them. 
  • Once asked for references, call the individuals as soon as possible. Even though the employer may have had a lenthy process of interviewing and selection, once they've made a decision, they generally want to move quickly to closure. When asked for your references, call your chosen references immediately to let them know they can expect a call. Fill them in on the details of the position and how you fit. Remind them of your time together. Keep the tone conversational, friendly and optimistic.
  • Keep your references informed and show your appreciation. Let your references know the outcome of your job search, even if you do not get the position. Thank them formally (in writing or by telephone) and let them know your willingness to support them in a similar fashion should they require a reference down the road.