How to Choose Your Job References

How do you pick the directors, coworkers and direct reports to be your job references?

A job reference must be more than just someone willing to shower you with praise. Recruiters and hiring managers are looking for someone who can speak to your performance and impact on the team; someone who was in a position to rely on your performance and offer a glimpse of how you will perform in the future.

The most effective references are from someone with whom you’ve worked: a former director, co-worker or somebody you’ve supervised, said Mary Schumacher, a certified professional resume writer who works with Ladders. Others to consider include vendors, customers or those with whom you’ve worked at a volunteer organization. Make sure only to include references who understand why you left the company and who will say good things about you, your leadership, and your performance, she said.

Before including a reference on a referral list, ask the person in advance to be a verbal reference (as opposed to writing a reference letter), Schumacher said. Bear in mind that “some companies or organizations have policies against saying a lot about a former employee except for dates of employment, salary, etc.,” she said.

Another hurdle is identifying references who no longer work at the company where they supervised you or worked at companies that no longer exist. In such a case, it’s “difficult to track down a former boss or co-worker, especially as people move around,” Schumacher said. She suggests obtaining a written letter of recommendation from the company and a former boss when you leave and keeping it on hand for the future. “The letters don’t carry as much credibility as a telephone conversation, but it’s better than nothing if you can’t find a person.”

If a prospective employer requests your references, make sure to give them a heads-up that someone might call and coach them on items to highlight from your past work, Schumacher said. Just as important: Make sure to thank them for their efforts on your behalf.

Director, friend and direct report

Dan Dorotik, also a certified professional resume writer who works with Ladders resume-writing service, formats his clients’ reference summaries into two columns. In the left column, he lists the email addresses, work phone numbers and titles in “Reference Information.” In a right-hand column, he then gives one- to two-sentence descriptions of the relationship between the job seeker and the reference, including the information the reference can verify about the job seeker.

Alternatively, Dorotik lists a testimonial from the reference in the right column, which he said can be an excerpt from a letter of recommendation, an e-mail or another source.

“This presentation of references is much more effective, as it provides further insight into the candidate-reference relationship,” he said. “Many job seekers do not use this type of reference summary, so those who do position themselves above the competition.”