When you apply for a new position, you should already have a good idea of which names will be on your reference list. If you’re successful in getting to the final stages of the hiring process, the people you select as a reference need to be well-thought-out and tailored to help you close the deal. Furthermore, they need to support your bid for the job and be able to highlight how your experience makes you the perfect choice for the position. 

So how do you go about selecting the right references and making sure that they are ready to go to bat for you? 

The first thing to keep in mind is that your reference list should be more extensive than the three names you submit for a given position. Your references should be an evolving, curated list of people who can best represent your abilities depending on what the particular situation requires. 

When it comes time to submit references, you want to have the luxury of choice and don’t want to find yourself having to use whoever you can connect with at the moment. 

Building the List

Your references can come from a variety of sources. They can be mentors, previous employers, coworkers, or even direct reports. We will explore each option and how to decide if they’re right for the position you’re applying for currently. 

Mentors

Throughout your career, good mentors are essential to helping you navigate your chosen profession. Their advice can be critical in assisting you avoid pitfalls and directing you to your next career opportunity. And, if you’ve cultivated a mentor relationship over many years, they will also have good insight into your skills and ambitions. These guides are also usually in more senior roles with titles and positions that lend to their credibility when providing a referral to a prospective employer. 

When to use a Mentor: A good Mentor is going to be at the top of the reference list for most job applications. That said, it’s imperative that before a mentor ends up on your list that you have a well-established relationship. A recent mentor or one whom you check-in with very irregularly will not be in a position to give a reliable recommendation. If your reference comes across as hesitant or unsure of how to respond to detailed questions, it may do more harm having them on your list.

Managers

Your manager or direct supervisor will often have one of the best assessments of your skills and abilities. Their positive opinion of your working style can add a considerable amount of heft to your application. Further to this, the longer you’ve been in a position with a given supervisor, the greater the depth of talents they will be able to address during their conversation with your prospective employer.

When to use a Manager: This one can be tricky. A current supervisor may be reluctant to let you go, or if the manager is part of the reason you want to move on, you may want to leave them off the list. However, there are a few strategies that can allow you to include a direct supervisor as a reference. First, be sure to maintain good relations with past managers, as best you can. Having a manager on the list from your recent career history can have much the same effect as a current supervisor. Another great option is a manager who has moved on to a new company. Having left the organization, they can speak to your abilities without your departure, affecting them directly. Of course, the more recently you reported to a supervisor, the better. You may also want to consider selecting a manager in your organization for whom you’ve done project work. The nature of many companies today means employees will often have a direct manager, but then report to multiple supervisors depending on the given project. A project-specific manager that you connect well with is in a perfect position to speak to your skill sets and a great workaround if your direct manager is not a good fit for the reference list.

Direct Reports

If you have a staff team that reports to you, those people are in an excellent position to speak to your capabilities as a manager. And, if the new job you’re applying for relies heavily on your strengths in managing people, having someone on the list who can speak directly to your abilities in this regard is a good idea. Furthermore, a direct report will have experienced your project management style firsthand and can talk to your capacity to motivate a team and see a plan through to completion. 

When to use Direct Reports: Having a direct report on the list is fundamental if your new role will include managing people or projects. Your ability to lead and inspire those employees under your supervision speaks volumes, and the confidence to include a direct report on your reference list indicates a high degree of transparency to your prospective employer. Although similarly to adding a current manager, be sensitive to whether including an existing direct report is a good idea. Looking at your recent employment past for a suitable team member may be the better option. 

Coworkers

The people you work collaboratively with on a daily basis have a unique vantage point to your ability to function as a team player. Often, by nature of building up a working camaraderie with you, coworkers are the most enthusiastic about helping you succeed in your career. Your ability to foster strong team relations also demonstrates to a prospective employer that you can function well as part of a broader team.  

When to use Coworkers: If the position you’re applying for has a strong focus on teamwork and shared project responsibility, a coworker is an excellent asset on your reference list. You will, of course, want to consider if you’re leaving a current position that will cause considerable stress on your existing team. If this is the case, it might be better to select a coworker from your recent past to avoid upsetting your current team dynamic.

Clients

Depending on the nature of your work, the clients you work with can provide a unique and valued perspective into how you operate as a professional. Often, if developed over several years, your regular clients can become closer than colleagues and genuine professional relationships. 

When to use Clients: Clients can prove to be incredible references. However, when deciding to engage one for a recommendation, you will need to tread carefully. Your client may have ongoing deliverables with your current employer and could end up having to choose between you and what’s right for their company. You will also want only to use a client with whom you have a long-standing relationship, so they can speak in-depth about how you worked together to solve their problems. 

Selecting the Right References

Now that we’ve looked at the types of references you might compile, we want to explore how you can maintain and decide which references are right for a given position. Ideally, you will provide a list of three contacts for a prospective employer to call. 

While applicants for more senior roles will rely on CEO or Board-level references to confirm their credentials, younger or mid-level employees should have a professional mentor at the top of the list. An active mentor relationship gives you access to a level of credibility that is difficult for many younger applicants to match. Without a mentor in the top position, you will want to select a high-level manager. Your skills and experience should always be what gets you a job, but having a senior professional vouch for your abilities still goes a long way. 

For the second spot, you will want to think about what characteristics are most critical to the position. If the job requires managing direct reports, this an excellent opportunity to use a previous team member. If, however, the job requires you to be a part of a tightly integrated product team, having a former colleague  attest to your abilities as a team player would make more sense. Try to select someone you’ve worked with recently and on a similar type of project, if possible. Of course, if you had a mentor in the top spot, the second billing is the right place to include a supervisor, and push the coworker or direct report to number three. 

Assuming you don’t have a mentor in the first position and still need a third reference, this is where we go back to your broader list. If you have a second former manager who you connected with, this is an excellent spot to use them. However, moving to your second choice for a former coworker is also a great option. If the job you’re applying for draws heavily on client relationships, this may also be the place to use a client reference. Just remember to be careful with this one. If the position is with a competing company, giving them access to clients of your current company can do severe damage to your professional reputation. 

Preparing your References

When you begin looking to change positions, you should already have a current list of references that can be activated at a moment’s notice. However, you want to make sure that once you’ve selected the people for a given application that you take the time to prep each of them for the call.

The first thing to remember is that you should be notifying your selected reference list when you are going for a first interview. Even if you don’t make it through to the next round, it allows you to engage with the people you hope to put forward to recommend you. You refresh the contact, and you can get a sense if maybe a given person is uneasy and should potentially be swapped for a more confident choice. It also allows your selections to offer you advice and become invested in the process. They may even have other opportunities to send your way now that they know you’re actively looking.

The next piece to review with your selected references is why you chose them to provide a recommendation for this role. It might be because they know your skillset well and how it will be an advantage in this new position. It may be because of a project you worked on together that you feel demonstrates your core competencies. Or, they may be able to discuss your ability to motivate a team, having worked for you in the past. Whatever the motivation for each person, talk about it specifically with them. While it will be up to them what they say on the reference call, the more you can plant in their mind, the better. 

Finally, once you have confirmation from your prospective employer that they will be checking your references, call each of them back. Let them know they should expect a call but also try to pull specific items from the interview that relate to why you selected them as a reference. This last call is your final opportunity to go over the particular points you are hoping they will cover. And, before you let them go, thank them for agreeing to be a reference and ask them to let you know when they’ve had the call. 

Maintain Your List

The final piece is a bit of housekeeping. After a connection has been a reference for you, be sure to send an appropriate thank you. Regardless of the employment outcome, you want to make sure each person who took the time to confirm your credentials feels appreciated. A great way to express gratitude and stand out from the crowd is by sending handwritten thank you cards. They take a small bit of effort and demonstrate sincerity. It’s also good form to offer yourself as a potential reference if ever they need one.

Work with a Professional

If you’re looking to make a career change and want to make sure you’re getting all of the steps just right, make an appointment to speak with one of our recruitment professionals. At LRO Staffing, we’ve been helping connect job seekers with employers for years now, and we know how to make sure you’re doing it just right.