Getting Good References for Your Job Hunt

Once you make it to the interview stage of your job hunt, your interviewer might ask you for work references and/or character references. An interviewer's office is not the place to start thinking about references; do your footwork beforehand to compile a list of references so you're ready when the question comes.

About references

Not every company does extensive background checks on potential employees. In some cases, they might call one or two of your references but not spend a whole lot of time on it. In other cases, they might verify all your references and even look at your police record. You don't know what a potential employer might do with your list of references, so assume that they will each be checked.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind about your references list:

  • Never include your references on your resume; wait for them to ask for it.
  • Have your references printed up with the same look and feel as your resume. It just looks more professional.
  • Some people want work references. Some people want character references. Some people want both. Make sure you have several of both on hand.
  • A potential employer wants to contact people on your references list, so make sure that you have good contact information for each of them. Today, that means at the very least either a phone number or an e-mail address, though complete contact information makes a better impression.

Who makes a good reference?

The main purpose of a references list is to give a potential employer what he needs to validate what appears on your resume. If you have some job experience, good references are past supervisors and coworkers who can corroborate the knowledge and experience that you list on your resume. Recent college grads, who don't have as much experience, are given a little leeway in this area and can fall back more on character references.

Here are some people to approach and avoid as references:

  • Avoid family. Even if you served an internship at a business owned by a parent, look for someone else at the company who can vouch for your skills and service.
  • Clergy and coaches are usually good as character references unless they have knowledge of your skills in an area that is important for the job you're going after, in which case they can be great work references. For example, a pastor who can speak about your mission work is a great work reference if you're applying for a job at FEMA.
  • Letters of recommendation from your college professors are okay, but employers want to be able to contact your reference and ask questions, so make sure you have that professor's contact information as well.
  • If you have some job experience, an immediate supervisor is an obvious choice as a reference but is not always the best choice. If a supervisor watches over a large number of subordinates, or if he's just plan clueless about all you've really done, a former coworker who's more familiar with your actual work may be a better choice.

Getting your references on board

It's common knowledge that it's pretty rude to include someone on a references list without asking. This is true, but permission isn't the only thing you need to keep your referential ducks in a row:

  • Let your references know when you're actively job hunting so a call from a potential employer won't come as a surprise. This is especially important in an age of caller ID, when many people won't pick up the phone if they don't recognize the number.
  • Give your references a copy of your current resume. It can serve as a reminder of your accomplishments and can keep them from accidentally contradicting something you've written there.
  • After you've landed your dream job, or at least your next job, let your references know about it and thank them for their help.