How references can help (or hurt) your candidacy

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Q:  I have been told my references matter and can either really improve my chances of landing a new job or they can really derail a job offer.  What can I do to focus on improving my references and making sure that they help me and don’t hurt me?

business men phonecall

A: Professional references are critical to a candidate’s success.  Few companies extend offers without checking at least one (or more) references.

Here are some tips:

  1. Develop and nurture positive relationships with colleagues, vendors and supervisors. Perform well! It is easy to give a positive reference about a strong performer.
  2. Maintain professional relationships so that you have professional references ready to go when you are asked to provide them. Even better, if you are a finalist, proactively offer a list of 3 to 5 professional references.  Your list of professional references should have the same “look and feel” as your resume.  Both documents should have similar font, layout, etc.  Include the same header as the one that sits on the top of your resume so it is easy to distinguish that these are your references.  Here is a sample of what information to include:

John Doe, now at 123 Inc.

Former Manager for 11 years at ABC Corporation, c: (617) 555-0000 o: (617) 555-1111 (cell preferred)

  1. Most employers want at least one professional reference who has supervised you directly. However, sometimes employers also want to talk with others, including those who may have worked with you or may have worked alongside you.  This is especially true if you only have had one supervisor during your entire career, and you can not give your current supervisor as a reference without jeopardizing your current role.
  2. Prep your references. A professional reference should always be prepped prior to receiving a call or an email about your candidacy.  They should know what to highlight in your background and what is less meaningful.  I suggest candidates email their references a few bullet points so the professional reference can focus share what you would like them to focus on.
  3. Be aware that companies use LinkedIn and other tools to check you out. Even though you may have prepared a list of professional references, employers want “the real story” about you as a candidate and as a prospective employee.  They will often visit your profile on LinkedIn and try to determine if there are any common connections.  Many call this a “back-channel reference” as it is not always disclosed to the candidate.  Employers have to use caution when contacting these types of references because sometimes it gets back to the candidate’s employer, which is a disastrous situation for candidates currently employed.

Finally, thank your professional references if they respond to a call or an email about you and your professional capabilities.  Jot a quick email or write a quick note of thanks.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.