The Smart Way to Ask for a Reference

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Woman taking reference call


“Can you please send me a couple of references?”

Once you get to a certain stage of the interview process, you will inevitably get to this common question. Most of the time, job reference checks are pro forma and mean you’re in a pretty good place. Your prospective employer wouldn’t be asking you about getting a reference if you weren’t seriously in the running for the job.

Be prepared to get this question and approach it seriously in order to make sure that this last step in the job offer process doesn’t derail you when you’ve gotten so close to the prize and making the next step in your career. With any luck, the job searching process is nearly over.

What You Should Do

1. Ask to send reference names and phone numbers later.

The person asking you for references rarely expects that you will tell them right then and there who your references are and their contact details. You should simply say, “Yes, I’ll send you an email with my references.” This way, you have time to actually tell the people who will be giving your references that they should expect to be contacted with a call or note from someone.

2. Ask your references for permission before giving names and contact details.

It’s not polite to assume your prospective employment reference will absolutely give you a reference. Even if you’re sure that someone will give you a reference, if you tell them about the job you’re applying for and why you’re interested, they will better be able to anticipate the kinds of questions and speak to your potential fit and skills more intelligently.

3. Tell your reference what job and position you’re interested in and why you think you’re a good fit.

While you’re not interviewing with your reference, telling them a bit more about the position and role you’re seeking will help them frame what they know about you in a light most helpful to your desired role. You may even find that this helps your reference think a bit more about what he/she may want to say about you, which will probably ensure a smoother conversation when it happens.

4. Thank your reference for their time.

Regardless of whether you get the job or not, be sure to follow up and thank your reference for speaking to the person at the prospective employer. Being gracious will help ensure that you can use that reference again in the future and you may also be able to get a better sense of how the conversation went (and therefore your prospects of getting that job offer).

What You Shouldn’t Do

1. Suggest references whom you’re not convinced will be positively inclined towards you.

It’s probably better to give fewer references than more if you’re not convinced that you will get a positive review. Ambivalent references will only create doubt in your future employer’s mind and you don’t want to introduce uncertainty at this stage of the game.

2. Give only one reference.

Even if you’re only asked for 1 reference and fully expect that your prospective employer will only ask for a single name, provide more than one just in case. First, it looks better if you have more than one person willing to attest to your skills and character. Second, you never know when one of your references may be unavailable or very difficult to reach. Providing a second option is always good if you can.

3. Ask what your reference is going to say about you.

When someone agrees to act as a reference for you, it’s understood that it is an honest and confidential conversation. Even if you are very close to your reference, it puts your reference in an awkward situation to feel the pressure of following a script that’s anything less than his or her honest assessment of you. Plus, in most cases prospective employers have their own list of questions they plan on covering about you and your reference may be asked specific things that you cannot anticipate.

4. Ask what your reference said about you after they talk to your prospective employer.

The only thing worse than pressuring your reference to say something specific about you when they give your reference is to ask what he or she has said after they’ve given it. First of all, what’s done is done. Second, it makes you look less than dignified and disrespectful of the confidentiality implied by reference checks.

References are rare and can be helpful throughout your career. Sometimes you will find yourself looking and applying for a job in your current role which means you should maintain good relationships with former managers and colleagues who may end up having to provide you references when you are confidentially still looking for a job and can’t ask your current boss. Treat your references with respect and they’ll be there for you for many years to come!

Professional References vs. Personal References

Keep in mind that a professional reference and personal reference are not the same things. A professional reference comes from someone you know in a work context, such as a manager, colleague or professor, and is used in that context — work purposes. Meanwhile, a personal reference, also known as a character reference, can come from a colleague who knows you well, but you can also ask a friend and in some cases even a family member. A personal reference is used in a variety of contexts, such as when you're renting an apartment or house or adopting a child. It is meant to shed light on your personal qualities, while a professional reference testifies to your work strengths.

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