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How to Choose the Best Job References

Good references will increase your chances of getting the job you want. Knowing who and how to ask for a reference is an important part in landing the job.

Your references are people who know you and can tell an employer positive things about you. They help potential employers form a picture of what you’re like to work with, what your strengths and skills are, and ultimately why you’re the best person for the job.

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Who should you choose to be a job reference?

Depending on your work experience, you can select 2 types of references. If possible, these references should be able to talk about more recent experiences.

Professional or work references

If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, you probably have some good work references. These are people who have worked closely with you in a paid job or volunteer setting. A supervisor who knows your work is ideal. It’s better to get a reference from someone who has worked closely with you and knows you well than from someone higher up in the company who hasn’t worked directly with you.

If you don’t think your current supervisor would give you a good reference, you can ask a current co-worker or client for a reference.

Other work references can include recent and former employers. And if you’re just starting out, consider asking teachers you enjoyed or people at places you volunteered at. You can also ask people who you worked for on a casual basis such as people you babysat or did yard work for. 

Personal references

You may need to use personal references if you don’t have a lot of work experience. Teachers and staff at places you volunteered can also be a personal reference. However, it’s best to not use the same person as both a work and personal reference. Other possible personal references can include, coaches, elders, neighbours, and landlords.

Do you belong to a religious or community group, or a newcomer support service? Ask a leader in those groups for a reference.

Personal references should not include family members, unless you have worked for them. Choose people who can speak to your work ethic and employability skills.

What should you ask your possible references?

You can approach a reference in person, by phone, or by email. Once you’ve contacted them, you’ll need to ask a few things. Remember to give your references enough time to respond to requests from potential employers. Allow references at least a few days to prepare for a phone call and 2 weeks to provide a reference letter.

A positive reference

Make sure your reference will say good things about you. If not, you’re better off asking other people. Give your contacts a way to decline if they feel they can’t provide a positive reference. Ask questions such as:

  • Do you feel you know me and my work well enough to be comfortable giving me a reference?
  • Do you feel comfortable giving me a good reference?

If your contacts say “yes,” you can be confident that they’ll say positive things about you.

Because of legal risks, some employers will only confirm basic employment details for former employees. These would include dates, position, and salary. Even though this may be company policy, potential employers may not consider this to be a positive reference. Find out if a reference must answer this way. Then ask them to explain to potential employers that this response is company policy and no a reflection of you or your work.

Before you ask current supervisors if they will give a reference, consider how they view people who change jobs. Do they appear to support workers who move to other jobs? Or will they think that people who change jobs are disloyal? If you are concerned that they won’t support you, you may not want to tell them that you are looking for a new job.

Their preferred contact method

Ask whether your candidates want to provide their references by phone or email. Note what they’d like on your list of references.

Who should you pick as your best references?

Keep a list of all your possible references, but choose only a few to send to your potential employer.

The best references for you are people who can:

  • Answer specific questions about you and your work because they know you well enough
  • Speak to your experience, skills, achievements, and work ethic in a positive way
  • Talk about you in terms of the skills you have for the new job
  • Recommend you wholeheartedly
  • Express themselves clearly over the phone or in writing

How many references do you need?

You should have 3 to 5 references ready for each job application. The more senior the position you are applying for, the greater the number of references you need. At least 3 people on your list should have supervised you at work, at school, or in a volunteer role.

Unless you’re asked to do so, don’t submit your references with your resumé

How do you write a job references list?

List your references on a separate sheet of paper. Include:

  • First and last name
  • Job title (unless a personal reference)
  • Name of company or corporation they currently work for
  • Email address
  • Phone number
  • How they prefer to be contacted

The printed list should have the same font and formatting as your resumé. Put your own name and the word “references” on this document.

Take the list when you meet with employers so you can give it to them if they ask for it.

Should you ask for a reference letter?

Most employers prefer to talk to references by phone. There are situations such as when your reference is about to retire or move when a letter of reference, sometimes called a letter of recommendation, is useful. When this is the case, it is best to have it written using the company letterhead.

Does your reference live outside the country? Some potential employers don’t want to call a reference outside the country, so offer an email address instead. But a reference letter can also help. If the letter is in a foreign language, give potential employers a professional translation too.

These letters can often be used for future interviews, so make sure to submit copies and keep the originals.

How do you manage your reference list?

Your reference list should not be something you toss together while you’re leaving for an interview. Prepare and manage your references list from the start when you’re getting ready to respond to a job posting. Keep your list of references up to date by following these steps.

Before an interview

  • Make sure your list includes current information for each reference. This includes name, position, company, address, phone number, email, and how employers should contact them.
  • Keep track of how you know them. For example, note if they’re your supervisor, client, neighbour, or teacher.
  • Ask for permission each time you want to use that person as a reference.
  • Offer your references a current resumé or sum up your skills and achievements and the work you did for them.
  • Describe the position you want and the skills you need. If possible, send a copy of the job posting.
  • Make sure you both agree about the details of why and how you left your job. You and your reference must have the same explanation. It should be as positive as possible
  • Explain any steps you’ve taken to improve your performance. A potential employer may ask both you and your reference about your perceived weaknesses.

After an interview

  • Update your references about how the interview went.
  • Thank your references, whether or not you get the job. Because they gave their time, it’s important to thank them each time you use their names. If a reference writes a letter for you, a letter is a fitting way to say thank you.

After you get the job

Maintain and build your reference list by:

  • Sharing your current successes. Let your references know about recent projects and achievements.
  • Staying in touch with your references. Call, email, or connect on a professional networking website such as LinkedIn.
  • Asking for a reference or reference letter each time you leave a position.
  • Staying on good terms with past employers.
  • Keeping a ‘compliments’ file. It can include good performance reviews, and letters or emails of praise or thanks. Keep track of positive comments from clients and customers too. These all serve as reminders of people who liked your work in the past and may be willing to give you a reference in the future.

You want to find references who are able and willing to tell employers the best about you. You need a list of people who can speak to all aspects of your employable skills, from your work ethic to your technical abilities. And remember, people who give you a reference are doing you a favour. Treat them in a polite and businesslike way to show them that you value their support.

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