How to Choose the Right Professional References

References are your third-party credibility when trying to seal the deal on a new job. Having the right references is crucial in the interview process, yet a lot of job seekers don’t curate the appropriate references for a job. Like resumes and cover letters, references aren’t one-size-fits-all. Finding colleagues who will make you sound like the perfect candidate for a role should be broken down into three steps.

Who should you choose as a reference?

Similar to preparing for an interview, examine the job posting you’re applying for and pick out the key responsibilities and skills. Think about personal anecdotes when you’ve applied these skills and recall anyone can vouch for your story or skills. These are the people you want to be your reference. For example, if the role is for an account manager then an excellent reference is a former client who loved working with you.

When choosing your group of reference it’s best to have a variety of people. For the account manager example, an ideal mix of references would be your former boss, a teammate and client. For an extra punch, if you were on good terms with your boss’ supervisor, he or she would be another powerful reference to add to the mix.

Where can you use a reference?

You can use your references before you even start looking for a new job. In the age of LinkedIn, recommendations on your LinkedIn profile can go a long way. Having colleagues who endorse your skills or write recommendations on your LinkedIn page are a must in today’s job search process. Just make sure that the reviews and skills endorsed are of quality, substance and match the skill set of the job posting you’re applying for.  

These one-paragraph blurbs are important in the first stages of the interview process, but once you get to the final stages you’ll need someone who is willing to take the time to sit on a 15-30 minute call and sing your praises. Having great recommendations on LinkedIn doesn’t substitute for someone who is willing to be contacted directly for a referral. Some jobs still require a formal letter of recommendation.

How do you ask someone to be your reference?

Always ask the person first before listing them as a reference. No one wants to be called out of the blue and asked to speak about someone else’s accomplishments. You’ll only make yourself look bad to the interviewer, and you might ruin your relationship with your potential reference. Even if it’s someone who has given you a reference before, it’s best to ask them first.

Email is probably the best way to ask someone to be a reference. If necessary, refresh their memory of who you are and how you worked together in the first lines of the e-mail. Then you can give them details on the role you’re applying for and what skills you hope to call out. If you’re in a time crunch you can follow up with a phone call. If they politely decline your ask, it’s important to still thank them for their time. If they do accept the responsibility of being your reference, don’t forget to thank them again after the interview process. Be humble and gracious when asking for a reference. It’s about building relationships, not a one-time deal.