6 Steps to Ensuring Your References Take You the Distance

The following is a guest post by our summer intern, Darby Hennessey, a native Portlander and journalism student at the University of Mississippi. 


There’s only so much horn tooting one can do when attempting to snag a new job. You could go on for ages about how you’re perfect for this position and how you rocked your last job. But often, it’s not until the recruiter or hiring manager hears that same message from your references that your claims become legit.

Most people understand that references are a necessary part of the interview process, but fewer take steps to ensure that their people are going to come through for them, and showcase the stuff that will matter the most to the potential employer. And in the worst case, instead of reaffirming your skills, your trusted reference throws a curveball that sinks your chances of getting the job.


Good news, though. There are several things you can do to help ensure your references catapult you out of the "maybe" category and right into "Oh, heck YES." Here are a few:

  1. Alert them In advance.

    People need a heads-up. Not as in an I-just-turned-in-my-application-and-you’re-on-it heads up, rather and alert as soon as you decide you'd like to use them as a reference. Make sure you let them know about the specific jobs you're eyeing and, if possible, when you anticipate the hiring manager will contact them,. You'll also want to use this conversation to confirm that their contact information is up-to-date. 

  2. Pick the right people, who can vouch for the right things.

    Who will recommend you in a way that will likely resonate best with the hiring manager? Who will speak well to the things the interviewer and/or the company will care most about? If possible, compile a list of possible references and choose the ones who will be the most relevant for a given opportunity.

  3. Tell your people what you’d like for them to emphasize.

    Based on the job description and your understanding of the role, let them know what the caller will likely ask about, and, in turn, what you would appreciate most if your reference could emphasize. Does this job call for a strong project manager, a natural leader and someone who's efficient under pressure? Make sure your reference speaks to your strengths on these things during the call.

  4. On the flip side, coach them on what not to say, if possible.

    If you're gunning for a role that requires that you be a strong fundraiser and you realize that one of your references lived through a bust of a fundraiser with you, consider asking them (politely) to showcase a different example, one in which you had great success. You could be in for a surprising disappointment if one of your references over-divulges on a topic they didn't realize was critical. To the extent possible, coach your people in advance.

  5. Make absolutely sure they can give you the recommendation you need.

    Don't ever assume that a former colleague, former client, former boss is going to come through for you. If there is a shadow of a doubt in your mind what a reference may say when called, ask them point blank if they are comfortable vouching for you in a positive way about the things you want emphasized.

  6. Thank them (immediately) and offer to reciprocate. 

    Regardless of whether or not you get the job, thank them as soon as possible. And, if you do get the gig, thank them for their support and role in the process. And be sure and offer to reciprocate if they need a reference in the future.


Third party testimonials play a big role in many interview processes.  Be sure and apply thought and strategy to what could be the clinching factor for you in the next race.


Photo: Flickr Creative Commons License (Sarah Reid)