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Prepare Your Job References in 5 Simple Steps

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Most employers will want to chat with a few of your personal references before offering you a job. Do you have any idea who your best references might be? Do you know—truly—what they might say about you? Don’t leave it to chance. If you do, that one little overlooked detail could cost you the job offer. Instead, follow these five simple steps to prepare your job references.

  1. Select the right references. Not every reference will be appropriate every time. Pay attention to the description of the job you’re applying for and choose your references who can offer feedback in those areas. If you can, offer references in a variety of roles—a manager as well as a peer, for instance.
  2. Ask them. Please don’t overlook this step. “When your references are caught off-guard, they won’t have had the time to prepare thoughtful responses,” says The HT Group Founder/CEO Mark Turpin. Ask your top picks if they could serve as references and give them a heads up when you think they might be contacted and by whom. Confirm their preferred contact information and whether they’ll be available (not on an unplugged vacation, for instance).
  3. Offer helpful insights. When you ask for permission, take the opportunity to give your references a quick overview of the job and why you think you’re a great fit. Remind them where your strengths and passions lie so that they can better frame their “glowing” recommendations. You might even want to bring up certain shared projects or team dynamics that you think illustrate your qualifications.
  4. Invite honest feedback. Be upfront and ask them if they think they’d be able to offer a positive recommendation. If you note any hesitation, go ahead and ask for honest feedback because that’s exactly what the reference checker will do.

    “We’ve seen many candidates get burned because they assumed their references had nice things to say when, in fact, they did not,” Turpin says.

    When employers call references, they’ll often end with a question like, “Is there anything else we should know?” This offers an opportunity for references to “spill the beans” on why they might hesitate to hire you or work with you again. Don’t be blindsided by their answer. When you invite honest feedback ahead of time, you’re empowering yourself to a) address those concerns and/or b) reconsider using that reference.  
  5. Update them. You’ve recruited your references to play a critical role in your job search: Don’t burn those bridges and leave them hanging. Once you know they’ve been contacted, thank them for their time and give them any valuable updates you might have like, “I understand X Company reached out to you for a reference. Thank you for taking time out of your busy day to offer your feedback. I accepted an offer and will start next week!”

“It all comes down to treating your references with the respect and kindness you would expect if roles were reversed, Turpin adds. “Preparing them fully also ensures they have the time to thoughtfully consider their feedback.” For more advice, ask your HT Group recruiter.  


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