7 Rules for Managing Your Professional References

By Robert Half March 11, 2015 at 2:48pm

You may have invested a lot of time crafting the perfect resume and preparing for tough interview questions, but have you focused on managing your professional references? What people say about you can be a deal breaker in the hiring decision, so make sure you're following these rules.  

With so much competition in today’s job market, it’s easy for a single candidate to get lost among a stack of resumes and a slew of interviews. In some cases, the decision of who to hire comes down to a candidate’s references, and potential employers often dig deep. Managing these references is critical to any job search.

While it may seem like a simple matter of organizing a list of former colleagues and bosses, a closer look reveals that there is much to consider when managing your professional references:

1. Don’t assume

When selecting references, it’s easy to assume that former employers and supervisors are willing to put in a good word for you and your work. However, unless these potential references have recently expressed interest in being listed, it’s courteous, not to mention critical, to get permission.

2. List the most effective professional references

Different colleagues from your past can attest to different aspects of your professional life. Listing an HR manager at a previous job as a reference may not be as effective as listing your team or division head at the same job. Likewise, be careful not to list references who might come off simply as friends. Pick people who were close enough to you to genuinely know your work, but had enough authority to relate to your potential employer.

3. Consider removing older references in favor of newer ones

Although old job references may still be valid, you may be unintentionally sending the message that your more recent work and professional relationships weren’t as good. Try to find a balance that puts your entire relevant work history in a positive light.

4. Maintain the proper contact information

Remember that people change jobs and move frequently, and it's important to keep track. Including incorrect contact information on your list of job references not only looks lazy but also gives your potential employer one less opportunity to know how great you could be as an employee. It’s unlikely the hiring manager will go through the effort of finding the correct contact information if you didn't do that in the first place.

5. Triple check the copy

It's important for you as a prospective employee to know what employers are thinking, and studies have shown that even just a few innocent typing mistakes can cost you the job. Just as you would with your resume, read your reference list several times to check for spelling and format errors.

6. Customize for each job

Focusing on the specific tasks you would perform or the specialties of the company for which you’re applying may inspire you to switch things up accordingly. For example, certain colleagues and bosses from your past may know your management style, while others see you as an expert in client relations. Consider having a few different reference lists.

7. Give your references a heads up

If you do make it to the phase of the hiring process when your prospective employer starts checking references, let your job references know they may be contacted. You can help prepare them by letting them know the specific company and position you're applying for, and the types of qualities they may be looking for. For example, if the job requires excellent attention to detail, you could remind your reference that you were responsible for proofreading all the company's press releases in addition to your administrative duties.

Keeping your professional references organized and up to date won't take a lot of time, but it will go a long way toward getting you the job offer you want.

Have your professional references ever been the key to getting hired for you? Share your stories in the comments below.

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