Most any position for which you apply will require that you provide professional references. Sometimes, deciding whom to ask and how to ask can be tricky waters to navigate, especially if your current employer is unaware you are job searching. I’ve put together a few tips below on how to resolve common situations and help make the selection and request process for references easier on you.
My Current Employer Doesn’t Know I’m Job Searching
It is completely normal, and not at all a “red flag” or warning sign if you do not include your current supervisor or boss as a reference on your application. Most people who are job searching do not want their current employer to know about their efforts. If you have previous bosses or supervisors that you can trust, however, be sure to put them down as references—especially if they are in the same industry or will have exceptionally complimentary things to say about you.
Because you will likely need to ask former bosses to be a reference at some point in your career, it is important to stay in touch, even if just via email a few times a year after you depart the company. For them to be a valuable reference for you, you need to stay in their mind. If it’s been three years since you worked at a company, and you don’t stay in touch except to ask for a reference, it’s likely that you and your accomplishments will have faded from their memory a bit. This is nothing personal, it’s just what happens.
You can also ask a trusted colleague at your current company to be your reference. Unless the application specifically requires a supervisor/boss reference, a colleague can speak well to your professional skills and workplace demeanor. Of course, if you are not comfortable asking your boss for a reference because you don’t want them to know you are job searching, you need to make sure that your colleague is completely trustworthy and will not breathe a word to anyone.
What if This Is My First ‘Real’ Job?
If you’re a new college grad, finding references can be a little trickier than it is for those who are mid-career. However, it’s likely that the positions you are applying for are more entry-level. Even if they are not, your resume will make it clear that you are new to the professional world and won’t consider your lack of professional references to be a problem.
In many cases, college grads will have supervisors from internships or work-study jobs they can use as a reference. Even if you worked at a restaurant or in retail, the supervisor from that job can speak to your character, dedication, and overall attitude to customers and co-workers. Just because a job wasn’t in the exact industry or sector you are now applying for, don’t discount the value that a character reference about your overall workplace behavior can bring to an application.
But what if you haven’t held any job, and this really is your first job application? Turn to professors, to coaches, to any authority figure (outside of parents and relatives of course) who have been able to see you work hard, to grow, and to deal with other people. Do you volunteer for an organization? Ask the volunteer coordinator to be a reference. For professors and teachers, make sure they are the ones whose classes you excelled in, or with whom you had a great relationship. Don’t just choose the professor whose class is most closely related to the job you are applying for, especially if it was an entry-level, large lecture hall where you barely dealt with the professor. A personal connection will be much more effective as a reference.
Who Are the Most Effective References?
If you are one of the fortunate people with a bevy of references to choose from, it might be tough to whittle the list down to just three for a job application. First and foremost, if you have a reference who currently works for the company you are applying to, include them. That person is the most effective and can speak directly to why you would be an asset to the company.
You should also consider how recent your references are. One of your references might be able to give you a glowing reference, but did you work for them 15 years ago? Not only have you changed, but the world and the industry have certainly changed. As much as you can, choose references who can speak to your more recent accomplishments.
Relevancy is another factor to consider when deciding on professional references. Of course, the quality of a reference someone can give you is most important, but if two people are both going to be able to provide high praise, but one is a volunteer coordinator at an animal shelter and the other is a CEO of a marketing company, they are going to be able to speak to two very different skill sets. Consider the position you are applying for, the experience you want to be highlighted, and choose your references based in part on that.
I’ve Decided on My References. How Do I Ask Them?
As with any other request in the professional realm, you need to reach out well in advance of when you need an answer. While technology makes instant responses easy, it doesn’t always mean that people have time to type out a response or return a phone call the day they receive it or even within a few days.
A phone call is certainly the most formal way to ask someone to be your reference, but email is perfectly appropriate in today’s world. Just make sure that you do more than send a one-sentence email saying, “I’m applying for this job, can you be a reference?” You should make it a longer email, asking how they are doing, and explaining a little bit about the job you are applying for and why you are asking them to be a reference. For example, saying something like “I learned a lot about project management/customer service/marketing data while working with you, and would really appreciate it if you could be a reference for this job and share insight into my abilities as a project manager/customer service specialist/marketing data specialist with the company.”
And, of course, never forget the thank-you. Whether you get the job or not, be sure to follow up with a thank-you note, or even just a short email thanking your references for taking the time to help you out. It will go a long way, and will make them more likely to be a reference for you in the future.
When it comes to selecting references and asking people to be your professional reference, you might think it is in awkward question. Be assured it is not—people are often flattered to be asked to be used as a reference. It means you think highly of them and their opinion, and that they have had an impact on your life.
So get out your contacts list, comb through your LinkedIn, and start making lists of people who would be good references for different jobs. And if you haven’t been in touch with some of them recently, reach out, say hi, and keep in touch. You never know when they might be able to help you in the future.
Are you tired of your resume being rejected by applicant tracking systems? I know how frustrating it is to submit your resume and receive no response. I hate seeing qualified people never breakthrough the screening process. It shouldn’t be that way. That’s why I created this guide and I encourage you to download the FREE PDF so you can start seeing better resume response rates!
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About the author
Jessica Hernandez, President, CEO & Founder of Great Resumes Fast
Hi, I’m Jessica. I started this company back in 2008 after more than a decade directing hiring practices at Fortune 500 companies.
What started as a side hustle (before that was even a word!) helping friends of friends with their resumes has now grown into a company that serves hundreds of happy clients a year. But the personal touch? I’ve kept that.
You might have seen me featured as a resume expert in publications like Forbes, Fast Company, and Fortune. And in 2020, I was honored to be named as a LinkedIn Top Voice of the year!
I’m so glad you’re here, and I can’t wait to help you find your next perfect-fit position!
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