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Employment References That Work For You

Amidst the angst of writing cover letters, polishing resumes, and preparing for job interviews, spending time on employment references may fall by the wayside. But judging by the expert advice given by career counselors and employers alike, job references can be equally, if not more important than the rest.

Employment references often are the last step in the hiring process, so the competition has generally been whittled to a very small pool of candidates. A reference from a current or former employer is often the difference between being hired and writing more cover letters, so you should be sure your job references are solid. In an age where many companies are hesitant to do any more than confirm your dates of employment, you'll want to be sure that your employer has positive comments about your contributions.

Choosing the right people to serve as your references is an important choice and one which this article will explore.

Choose Your Employment References Wisely

You should start by preparing a summary list of potential references and gather their contact information. While your reference doesn't necessarily have to come from an employer, future employers typically prefer to hear what your supervisors and managers have to say about you, rather than what your co-workers think of your work. If you choose to selecting a mix of supervisors, co-workers, clients, and customers, just make sure you have at least a few people who have directly supervised your work. Personal friends or family members should be excluded.

Depending on the job for which you are applying, you should consider the types of questions the prospective employer will ask and the type of work you did with former employers. In doing so, you will get a better idea of which of your potential employment references would be more or less appropriate for your current job search. References should, at a minimum, be able to answer questions like:

  • why you left your last job
  • your performance under pressure (e.g., deadlines)
  • if you were promoted and why (or why not)
  • whether you've performed similar duties to the one you're interviewing for

Talk to Your References Before Giving Their Information

Common courtesy dictates that you ask permission before handing out other people's contact information. After all, they may not want to be contacted by future employers and take time out of their day to answer questions. This means that you should definitely not put anyone's contact info (aside from your own, of course) on your resume. Additionally, you will want to know what this person is likely to say about you and thus whether they would be a good reference.

You should contact your employment references and let them know your situation (hopefully you've already maintained regular contact) and discover for yourself during the conversation whether they would be a good reference. You should feel free to ask them directly what they might answer to some of the questions above, as well as questions directly related to the type of job for which you're applying.

When you speak with your potential reference, remind them of exactly what you did at your old position and your strengths in getting the job done. It may have been awhile since you worked with this person, so reminding them of the quality of your work and bring a copy of your resume to refresh their memory even further.

Discuss your career goals and see what type of feedback you get from them. Presumably you're asking them for an employment reference because you believe they have a favorable opinion about you and/or your work product, so it's likely that most of the people you speak with will be willing to serve as a reference and perhaps go a little further with career advice if they have any.

Maintain Your References

After you've spoken to a group of people you believe will give you positive references, compile their information (name, company, title, phone, address) in one document and print it out. You should bring this sheet to every interview you have and give it to those employers in whom you have an interest.

Just remember that the employment references are something you've earned and shouldn't be handed out to everyone who asks for a resume. The typical time to give reference information is at the end of an interview (maybe even your second interview). Let the employer request it, don't just throw it at them. If they have an interest in hiring you, they will ask you for references, and that's when you professionally pull it out of your folder.

You should also keep in touch with these references. Keep them abreast of your progress and make sure to thank them each time you get a job--graciousness goes a long way in the professional world. Your references likely have an interest in your future success, so they'll want to know how you're doing professionally, and it also increases their professional network.

Company Policies on Employment References

Some companies don't release information on former employees other than to confirm the dates of employment. These policies have arisen because of employees suing their former employers for speaking ill of former employees during reference checks and potentially costing them a job. Even if your former company has such a policy, it's wise to speak to your reference and make sure they will serve as good references. During a reference check, your former supervisor may be willing to go off record to say a few positive words if you were an outstanding employee.

Another consideration would be to waive your right to sue a former employee in exchange for the employer's willingness to respond honestly to potential employers. The catch here of course is that you need to double and triple check to confirm that your reference will be unequivocally positive. The last thing you want is to give up your right only to receive poor references.

Letters of Recommendations

Letters of recommendation may be necessary in upper level professional settings (e.g., law firms often request such letters from attorney applicants), though they are becoming less common. You should go through the same steps in contacting your references as outlined above, and ask if they would be willing to write a letter. This is obviously more labor intensive on a former employer's part, so you might suggest a general structure which they could follow.

Letters of recommendation should be simple but descriptive of the work you've performed, the quality of work, and opinion of your potential for future work. You might give your employment reference a simple outline such as:

  • how you are connected professionally--what position you had, how the reference is qualified to recommend you
  • your qualifications for the job--skills, achievements, aptitude
  • simple conclusion as to the level of recommendation (highly recommend obviously being the best)

You can give the employment reference tips on how you fit some of the above, but don't be pushy--they have their own opinion and it's off-putting to be told what to write. Because of the time such a letter takes to write, you might also consider giving the writer a small gift, or at least a written note, of appreciation.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified employment attorney to make sure
your rights are protected.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

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