How to respond to a professional reference request

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Q:  I was just told that I should email my references to an employer.  I guess I am now a final candidate.  Who should I give as references?  I know my neighbor will serve as a reference, but not sure who else I can give.  My current manager is too risky.  I am questioning the logistics of this process. 

A:  Congratulations!  It sounds like you are a strong candidate for a new opportunity.  When an employer asks you for references, there is usually serious interest in your professional capabilities, and you are likely qualified for the role.

Most employers are trying to assess your relevant work experience, capabilities and transferrable skills.  One way that can be done is to talk to someone who has worked with you in the past.

Usually, an employer prefers to talk with a professional reference.  This means someone who has worked with you, or supervised you.  Sometimes an employer will be fine talking to a personal reference, like a neighbor, a classmate or a friend.  A personal reference is often used, when a candidate can’t give a current reference from their employer, or the candidate has a gap in their background, which would make it difficult to track down a former co-worker or manager.  Some employers insist on talking to someone who has supervised you.  Some employers may even extend an offer contingent upon the completion of satisfactory references.

Our rule of thumb is to request 3-4 professional references.  Sometime telephone tag, travel schedules or other factors may make it difficult to have a live conversation with a professional reference.  We like to have the reference’s name, how you knew them, their cell phone number and their email address.  Specifically, we suggest that a candidate present a one-page document with the title of “References for John Doe.”  This document should have the same “look and feel” as the candidate’s resume.  The font and the layout should be similar.  We are always impressed when a candidate is able to email this document to us quickly when we request references.

A candidate should make every attempt to prepare their references before the company and/or hiring representative contacts them.  A candidate should ask their reference to include skills and experience, which are most relevant to the new opportunity.  The reference may know little or even nothing about this new role, or even the prospective employer.  If this role requires strong Excel skills, then the reference should discuss Excel skills at some point during the call.  If the role requires the ability to meet a sales quota, then the reference should offer examples of how you met and/or exceeded a sales quota.

Professional references are typically one of the last steps in the process.  It is important that this step is completed, and that the information is positive, and is consistent with what the employer has learned, thus far, about the candidate.

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.