When applying for a position online, you may be asked to attach a file containing the names and contact information for professional references as a required part of your application submission. Even when a computerized online application form is not used, many job postings specifically indicate professional references must be submitted. If you are in an interview, but have not yet been asked for references, the topic may come up. This is especially true if you are being seriously considered for the position. So, what it the proper way to handle requests for professional references?
Why and who?
First, let’s look at why applicants are asked for professional references and who should these individuals should be. Remember, to an interviewer, you are an unknown and unproven entity. In this situation, there is always the very real risk of inadvertently making a bad hiring decision. Contacting professional references is one way interviewers feel they can help minimize that risk. After all, a professional reference is – or should be – an individual who can attest to your experience, skills, and integrity.
The ideal reference is someone who has seen you on the job and can speak to your work quality. They can report on how well you performed in a similar position or setting. The interviewer would like to actually talk with a number of people who are able to confirm your employment history. If these people are willing to stick their necks out to vouch for you, great! He or she will feel that due diligence has been done in vetting you. Yes, interviewers are aware you will likely provide the names of people who will (or should) say only good things. More about that later.
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Let’s look at some suggestions to help ensure your list of references is helpful rather than harmful.
Make sure the professional reference has agreed in advance to speak to potential employers about you and they know you give your permission for them to do so.
First and foremost, NEVER list someone as a professional reference unless you have personally contacted them and obtained their agreement to be listed. Nothing reflects your lack of professionalism like having an interviewer call a reference who says, “Oh, um, I didn’t know Mary listed me as a reference.” This places your reference in an uncomfortable and awkward situation, forcing them to decide on-the-spot whether or not to talk to the unfamiliar caller, and if so, how much to say. In today’s litigious, sue-me-sue-you environment, people are understandably hesitant to say almost anything to an unexpected and unknown caller. This is especially true when the caller is seeking employment information and asking probing questions about your personality, abilities, skills, etc.
Many companies strictly prohibit individual employees or managers from giving out references or any employment information whatsoever. Often, they dictate that all such requests be immediately directed to Human Resources. I’m sure you would not want to put your professional reference in a situation where, in an effort to help you, they inadvertently violate policies which could result in their own termination or discipline! Finally, consider what may happen if your reference gets a surprise call and then sounds hesitant or unwilling to provide any information. The caller/interviewer might understandably read such resistance as an indication there is something negative about you being withheld or hidden.
Watch your back!
Consider also the culture and environment at your current job, as well as your relationship with your supervisor. You want to make sure a contact within your company is not caught off guard by unexpectedly learning you are seeking employment elsewhere should a reference check occur. As you might expect, some supervisors are supportive and want to see you succeed in your career even if that means you working elsewhere, whereas others can be vindictive or retaliatory. In extreme cases, I have heard of individuals being let go just because they were seeking employment elsewhere. If this sounds like your workplace, you may want to use only a very trusted person at your firm who knows the delicacy of the situation or a trusted individual outside your company.
The professional reference should be qualified to speak about you.
Obviously, anyone listed as a professional reference should have first-hand knowledge of your experience, skills, work ethic, etc. This might be a current or former supervisor, an executive in your company, colleague in another department or from another firm, or even a vendor. While your next-door neighbor since childhood or Great Aunt Matilda may be willing to attest to the fact you’re a good and kind person, they are probably not qualified to speak in detail regarding to your professional skills and abilities. Besides, the caller knows they are likely biased towards you. Also, peer coworkers with the same job title as yourself, performing the exact same work, are generally not considered strong references. The interviewer is apt to think of these individuals as being your friends rather than professionals who can speak objectively about you.
What about recent college graduates or others without significant work experience? Teachers and professors who know you well and with whom you have worked are logical choices. Also, perhaps individuals with whom you have worked in a volunteer capacity on a project, maybe through a community organization or church. Your involvement with such groups may have not been for pay, but these individuals have seen you in action. They can speak to how hard you work and your dependability, and may be able to describe skills you demonstrated which are transferable to the workplace.
Know what the professional reference is going to say.
This may sound like a no-brainer, but you would be shocked at what people who are listed as references will sometimes say. For example, I recall once contacting a candidate’s reference who proceeded to describe how the applicant was a pretty good employee except for having been involved in numerous fist-fights on the job. Also, it doesn’t say much for you if the reference cannot even recall who the heck you are or seems to know very little about your actual job performance.
Another critical point is being sure what the reference says agrees with your resume and application. If you state you worked for five years and your reference says three years, that’s a problem. If there is a discrepancy regarding the job duties you performed or the actual level of your position, this will also be a red flag. Even innocent disagreements between your version of the facts and those stated by a reference can look suspicious. Such discrepancies might even cause you to lose the job.
Make sure the contact information for your references is accurate and up-to-date.
From experience, I know the frustrations associated with sending out reference check request emails. Many of these result in “undeliverable email address” error messages. Another is calling telephone numbers which have long since been disconnected. Or, even if the call is answered, learning that the reference person has retired or is no longer employed there. If you cannot provide accurate information, what does that say about your attention to detail and quality? The easier you make it for the interviewer to obtain the necessary reference checks, the better it makes you look. Additionally, it may be possible more than one candidate is being considered for the job you seek. Don’t let your competition win out simply because no one could reach your references. That makes you look like the inferior applicant.
When do I provide the list of professional references?
Maintain your list of references as a separate document, keep it updated, and provide it only when requested. My recommendation is to indicate “Professional references available upon request” at the end of your resume. However, do not actually place the references on the resume. Do not routinely send the list of references along with cover letters, resumes, and applications unless the job posting or online application system instructs you to do so. Also, be sure to take several copies of your reference list along with you to the job interview. If the interviewers are impressed with you, they may want to check references right away. Having your list immediately available speeds up the process and makes you look even better.
If the situation with your current employer makes reference checking a delicate matter, it may be necessary to indicate to the potential employer that such a sensitive situation exists and while you have no problem with them obtaining a reference from your current organization, you would prefer they delay doing so until such time you become a finalist for the job. This must be done very carefully and professionally, and under no circumstances should you ever rant or bad-mouth your current employer. Just politely indicate that a casual reference check could have negative repercussions for you, so you are merely requesting that any such contact with your organization be delayed unless a job offer might result. Most experienced interviewers are aware that such situations exist and will likely understand and honor your request without hesitation.
How to format the professional reference list.
There are no hard and fast rules for formatting a professional reference list. Many different acceptable examples may easily be found online. The common elements are that it should contain the necessary information, have a logical and organized appearance, and be brief. If the interviewer or job posting asks for a certain number of references, provide that number. What if a specific number of references is not indicated? Providing three to five is usually acceptable, depending on the position sought and your experience. When seeking a higher-level position or if you have extensive experience, include one or two additional references. Be sure to list your strongest or best references first. The interviewer may end up only contacting one or two of the multiple people you identify.
Go for quality of references, not quantity. In cases where it would be appropriate to do so, consider using a variety of professionals from different disciplines. For example, someone applying for a position in a hospital setting may wish to have a mix which includes their supervisor, a physician, a nurse, and a hospital administrator, rather than four individuals who all hold the exact same position.
Do not write a detailed or lengthy narrative for each name listed. Include extra information only if it is needed to clarify something. I usually suggest including prefixes such as “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or other clues to indicate the gender of individual being contacted. This is especially helpful for names which are common to either sex, or those which are unusual or foreign. This can help avoid potential embarrassment for the interviewer or caller. Again, make the job of checking references easy and painless for the interviewer.
Having said that, however, be aware that due to sensitivity regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, there is a growing movement toward eliminating the use of gender-specific terms altogether. For example, it is becoming more common for biographies on company websites to include a list of an individual’s preferred pronouns (e.g., he, his, him). Attitudes about indicating gender seem to vary considerably, so research the acceptability of using gender-specific wording in your situation before drafting your list of references. The last thing you want to do when applying for a position is to accidentally offend either your reference or the interviewer, even though that was certainly not your intent.
A stand-alone list of professional references might be formatted as shown below. Notice how additional comments were included where helpful and applicable. Again, you will want to modify or eliminate the pronouns or other gender-specific terms if you sense this is an issue for the individuals involved.