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How to Use References as Your Secret Weapon (and Not Get Torpedoed!)

© 2002 Gail Frank

"REFERENCES AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST." This is standard language that appears on many job seekers' resumes. What is implied is that GOOD references are available upon request. Why would you provide references that will not help you get the job? Sadly, by not adequately preparing themselves and their references, many job seekers have seen a perfect job slip away. Don't let that happen to you.

The practice of calling individuals identified by the applicant themselves to vouch for them might seem silly, but for most hiring companies, reference checking is an important and necessary part of the hiring process. With the costs of hiring an employee ranging from $6,000 to over $25,000 if relocation is involved, employers want to make sure that their investment pays off. Take action to make sure your references actively help you secure the job you want.

1. References Need to be Presented Professionally
You know that your resume and cover letter are supposed to be prepared flawlessly. The presentation of your references should be given the same level of attention and professionalism, as they can reinforce (or undo) the positive impression the potential hiring company already has of you before checking your references.

Nothing is less professional than a job candidate groping through their notes trying to find a phone number for their references. It announces that you are unprepared and perhaps not even confident that you would need to provide references.

Be the person who pulls out a professionally prepared list of outstanding references, with everything that the reference checker could possibly need. This act states that you are ready and organized, and are approaching the job seeking process like the work project it really is.

2. Know the Differences Between "References" and "Employment Verification"
Many people get the terms "References" and “Employment verification” confused. “Employment verification” is when the potential employer contacts your previous places of employment to verify you worked there. This is different than a professional “Reference,” where someone is willing to discuss your work and vouch for your ability to do a good job.

Employment verification focuses primarily on facts; references often focus on subjective information. References are based on personal relationships. You are essentially asking someone to answer questions and share their impressions about your work style, accomplishments and interpersonal skills.

As part of your job-hunting preparation, you also want to do some homework with your former employers to understand their employment verification policy. Each company usually sets its own unique internal guidelines for handling such requests. You should know what information the company will release about you, such as dates of hire, last date of employment and job titles. Most companies restrict the information to those basic facts, but some will share salary and performance information also. Make sure you know who will be handling the response when employment verification requests come in.

3. Choose the Right People to Be Your References
Years ago, it was acceptable to provide both “personal” and “professional" references. In the new millennium, the credibility and relevance of personal references has disappeared. Forget the long-time family friends. Forget the priest, minister, or rabbi. Concentrate only on people who can attest to and give specific examples of your work, work ethic, and work style.

You want to offer 3-4 references, with 5 at the most. Try for a mixture of people above you (bosses, project leaders and managers), people next to you (peers, colleagues and co-workers), people below you (employees, mentees, support staff), and people outside (vendors and customers). Each of these people will view your skills and contributions differently, and can offer refreshing insight to a new employer.

Also strive to represent a mixture of work projects, different jobs you've held and community projects over the last several years. Each reference will therefore be able to provide examples about many different facets of your expertise. The result is a well-rounded and positive picture to paint for your new employer.

4. Time the Presentation of Your References Correctly
Pretend you have offered to be a reference for a colleague. You give permission to be called at work, although your schedule is always busy and overcrowded. Now, (honestly), how many reference discussions with strangers would you like to have about your former colleague? Ten? Fifteen? If you are honest you know it is more like one or two. More than that will start to grate on your nerves. While you want to help, your time is too precious to waste by talking to a lot of people when a job for your friend isn’t really at stake.

The point is that references are one of your most valuable resources in nailing that job offer. Don't waste them, and don't let them be called randomly. Guard them with the respect they deserve and let them only be contacted infrequently.

The ONLY time to share your references’ names and contact numbers is after you have been interviewed and you sense a job offer may be coming (and you are interested in possibly accepting). Before then it is simply too early. Of course, this means that references should never be listed on your resume or on your cover letter. Instead, they should be on their own professionally prepared document that you present to the interviewer at their request.

5. Make It Easy for Someone to Contact Your References
The Reference Sheet should include the reference's name, the address and phone number where they would like to be contacted (ask them, since most will have a preference), their current job title, some background on them (John has worked for GE for 25 years in both engineering and manufacturing, and is now the head of the group pioneering new products. He is a huge Yankees fan), and the nature of your professional relationship with them (I worked for Sue for 6 years, beginning as an administrative assistant. She promoted me to Marketing Coordinator and that was where I learned all about printing).

If you provide all this information in a professional format, you will likely be the only job candidate who adds this special attention to detail. Additionally, the background and relationship information you provide gives an entry point for the reference-checker to begin the call to the reference. This makes it easier on the interviewer, and therefore reflects well on you!

Remember, the reference-checker is forming an impression of you all along the process. Reference checking is subjective -- people "get a feeling" about you from the person. Make the initial impression they have of you positive, "Wow, Joe is so organized, I have lots of information about the people I have to call to discuss him. This is easy."

6. Prep Your References Before They Are Contacted
The worst thing you can do as a job seeker is to allow an experienced Human Resources Manager to contact your unprepared references and begin to grill them about you. Yet most job seekers do not make sure their references are prepared and primed to talk to the future employer. As the owner of the process you need to make sure your references are primed on
a) your past accomplishments and b) your future career goals, interests and strengths.

Does your reference have a copy of your current resume? They must! How many of you can say your boss really knows ALL of the things you get done around the office? Most don't -- so give them a cheat sheet. Remember, these people are your fans, and will love reviewing your resume and agreeing that you are a wonderful employee that can make a real contribution.

Before you give out a reference's name, place a call to them. Tell them about the job you are considering, and what you will be doing in the position. Be sure to tell them which traits to emphasize or what skills you wish them to communicate to the prospective hiring manager. The more they know about the job and what you have already told the potential employer, the better they can assist you in getting the job offer.

7. Make It a Priority To Keep In Touch with Your References
Your work is not done when you get the new job. Be sure to go back and thank your references profusely. Thank you notes are important and are expected from a professional at any level. Anyone who helps you along the way should be thanked and you should offer to return the favor if you can ever help them in the future.

Also, be sure to stay in touch with your references for the long may need them again someday. Many job seekers complain that they have "lost touch" with old employers and colleagues and therefore don't have any references to provide. Starting today, you must take on the responsibility to keep in touch with a list of people you would like to serve as future references. Holiday cards and birthday cards are a great way to stay in touch without a lot of effort.

Copyright 2002 Frankly Speaking: Resumes that Work! All Rights Reserved

Gail Frank is a Nationally Certified Resume Writer and Certified Job Coach who offers outplacement workshops, resume writing and interview training for small companies and individuals. She is a Harvard graduate with a background in Brand Management and Marketing with Fortune 500 companies, and as a trainer and consultant for top outplacement firm Drake Beam Morin. See her website:

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