How to Choose the Right Person to Be a Professional Reference
Great references are the final step in securing a job offer.
Having outstanding references is a key component of securing a full-time job offer. If a company takes the time to contact your references, there’s a good chance they’re pretty interested in hiring you. But if they’re deciding between you and another candidate, or they aren’t 100 percent sold on you yet, your references can make or break your chances.
So how do you navigate finding the perfect person for such an important role, especially if your professional contacts might be limited to college jobs and internships? While the right reference varies depending on the job you’re applying for, there are some key things to keep in mind regardless of the role.
Is this reference willing to be a reference for you?
One of the biggest mistakes you could make when it comes to references is assuming that someone will be your reference without getting their permission. Just because you had a good relationship with a supervisor doesn’t automatically mean you can put their name down as someone who will vouch for you. Chances are, the person you had in mind would be happy to speak about you. But if you don’t get their permission, that person could be blindsided by a call from a potential employer, which would definitely reflect poorly on you. While securing a good reference is important, securing their permission is just as important.
Always reach out to a potential reference before you put them down as a reference.
Does this reference actually know you?
Having a reference with an impressive title is great, but it’s not so great if they can’t speak on who you are as a person. You might be tempted to ask a professor that taught your lecture class because you attended a few office hours, but take a step back and think about if your proposed reference actually knows who you are and how you operate. Job references are different than letters of recommendation. It involves answering questions by phone and occasionally by email about your strengths and weaknesses. Even if a professor or the company director from your internship agrees to be a reference for you, it won’t help your chances if they’re only able to provide vague responses to the questions they’re asked.
What relationship does the reference have to you?
Friends, family members, and significant others are probably off-limits when it comes to references. In the cases that you’re working for a family business, try and ensure there’s some space between you and the reference. A great aunt might be better than your mom but, if possible, find someone who isn’t related to you. Friends and significant others are best left alone, even if you have worked together on some cool projects. You want someone who you solely have had a professional relationship with, and who an employer can count on to receive an objective rundown of you and your skills.
Your friend might be able to talk about how great you are, but is usually not the right choice for a professional reference.
Appropriate references could include your direct supervisor for an internship, a professor you have worked closely with, or your boss for a college job. The bottom line is that employers want to know what it’s like to manage you and work with you, so find an objective reference who can give them that information.
Can you count on this reference to give you a great recommendation?
If you’re not sure, ask. It would be great to have two or three references on hand that have nothing but good things to say about you, but if you need an additional reference and you aren’t 100 percent sure about them, double check that they are willing to speak positively on your behalf. After a standard email introduction, you could say something like this:
“I was wondering if you would be willing to be my reference for a job I am applying for. We have worked together in the past on XYZ, and I was hoping you would be able to speak positively on that experience. However, please let me know if you do not feel comfortable providing a positive recommendation to my potential employer.”
You would hope that someone would decline to be a reference if they didn’t have anything good to say about you, but it’s best to be clear about what you need if you’re not completely sure what a reference might say about you.
Will this reference be able to answer specific questions about your strengths, work ethic and work style?
Choosing a reference that knows you well enough to speak on specific skills and attributes is key. It’s also important that when providing multiple references, you choose people that can speak to various strengths of yours. The college professor that advised you on your senior thesis might be able to speak on your problem solving skills, but the supervisor for your food service job can speak about your punctuality and team-player attitude. Choose a diverse set of references that show off your multifaceted skill set, and give your future employer a well-rounded view of what you’re capable of.
If possible, tailoring your references to the job you want is ideal. If you are applying for a job in tech, for example, your computer science professor and two former software engineering internship supervisors would be the perfect choice. However, don’t feel as if you won’t get the job because your references come from a seemingly unrelated job. What matters is that whatever references you choose can speak on your positive attitude and willingness to work hard.