References Matter: Three Tips to Prep For Success
By Kristen Harris

There is a lot to think about when applying for a job—prepare a great resume, write a compelling cover letter, dress appropriately for the interview, follow up with a thank you note—these are all things YOU need to do. There is one more thing that OTHERS can do for you, and that’s provide a good reference. The difference between a glowing recommendation and a ho-hum reference check could be the difference between you getting the job offer or not.

Think references aren’t a big deal? When I need something done at my house, I ask my friends who they’ve used before and whether they’ve been happy with the work. Employers do the same thing. Resumes and interviews are one thing, but honest feedback from someone you trust goes a long way in deciding whether you want to work with someone day after day. A recent study found that 80 percent of employers contact references, and sixteen percent of them do it before they call a candidate for an interview.1 Sixty-nine percent of employers said they changed their mind about a candidate after speaking to a reference, with 23 percent saying they ended up having a more favorable opinion. Unfortunately, 47 percent had a less favorable impression of the candidate after the reference call. So yes, references matter.

You can’t control what your references will say, but you can strategically select the right people and prepare them to provide the best reference possible. A few tips to keep in mind:

1. Choose the right people. Provide three solid references for any job, making sure they’re the right reference for that job. You might have five or six people lined up who have agreed to be a reference for you, which allows you to select the three that are the best fit for each particular position. Ask your biggest cheerleaders, the people you know will say fantastic things about you, but also make sure they are people who understand what you do best and how that fits with the job you are applying for. It’s much more powerful if the reference can share how they think you will benefit the company and manager calling them, rather than just talking about what a nice person you are. And make sure they are all professional references, not personal. Former supervisors, co-workers, professors, non-profit or volunteer leaders, and professional mentors are all good choices.

2. Ask if you can use them as a reference. Be sure to reach out to people you have in mind before you share their information. Let them know that you’re looking for a new position, and ask if you can use them as a reference. Some people are not comfortable or allowed to act as a reference due to restrictions at their company. Don’t end up with that person on your list because you didn’t confirm their willingness beforehand. And, even worse, they may not give you a positive reference. Think it won’t happen? The survey showed that 62 percent of employers contacted a provided reference who did not have good things to say about the candidate. Three out of five said negative things! Don’t provide a reference unless you are 100% sure they will say positive things about you.

3. Provide references when asked. Follow the protocol of the company where you are applying. Some employers will ask for references upfront with the application or resumes. Others will ask at or after the interview, so be prepared with a printout of their contact information in case you’re asked. There are some companies who never ask, but it makes a good impression to offer. If you’re at the end of the interview and haven’t been asked for references, offer them. Saying “I brought a list of my references, would that help in your decision?” shows that you’re confident there are professionals who will say good things about you. It makes a good impression, whether they call or not. And, apparently, 80 percent of the time they will.

1 Nearly Three-in-Ten Employers Have Caught a Fake Reference on a Job Application; Harris Interactive survey on behalf of CareerBuilder; November 28, 2012

Author's Bio: 

Kristen Harris runs Portfolio Creative, the nation's fastest-growing creative staffing firm. An Inc. 5000 company for the past four years, Portfolio Creative connects clients with creative talent in all areas of design, marketing, communications and advertising.