7 Rules for Managing Your List of Professional References

By Robert Half on November 17, 2020 at 2:45pm

You’ve pulled out all the stops in your job search. You’ve sent out tailored resumes and cover letters. You’ve prepared for — and successfully fielded — tough interview questions. And it was all worth it because now you’re poised to land a great job offer. However, if you haven’t been managing your list of professional references, you could risk losing the opportunity.

Yes, references matter. Even today, when hiring managers can check networking sites to see who you know and what they have to say about you, most will still want to reach out to your references directly. With so many companies hiring remotely now, references are taking on even more importance. Businesses are being careful about their staffing decisions because they want to avoid making costly hiring mistakes.

Also, research from Robert Half found that 60% of companies that have hired employees during the pandemic have shortened their hiring process. Having your list of professional references ready to present to a hiring manager upon request can help keep that process efficient. It can also help you clear a critical hurdle to securing a job offer faster.

You might think organizing a reference list is a simple task that takes only a few minutes. But there’s actually a lot to consider when developing a list of professional references who can speak to your qualifications and potential. Here are seven basic rules to follow:

1. Give a critical eye to your list of obvious picks

Previous supervisors and close former colleagues are logical contacts to include on your list of professional references. They can attest to different aspects of your skills, attributes and experience. But there are some things to keep in mind when selecting these references.

First, are you listing a boss from a recent job, or a manager who supervised you at a company you worked for a decade ago? References from jobs held long ago may still be valid, of course. But if you don’t include more recent contacts, you may be unintentionally sending the message that those relationships weren’t as positive. Try to find a balance that puts your entire relevant work history in a positive light.

Create a list of three or four people who were close enough to you to genuinely know you and your work but who also have enough authority to relate to your potential employer. 

2. Don’t assume your contacts will be references

When drafting your list of professional references, don’t take for granted that former employers and coworkers are available — and willing — to put in a good word for you.

More than likely, because you’re choosing contacts you trust and respect, they will be delighted to be a reference for you if their company allows them. However, unless these individuals have recently expressed interest in being a professional reference, it’s essential to seek their permission. Consider it a critical measure of courtesy.

When you do reach out to a contact to request that they serve as a professional reference, use the opportunity to reconnect with them. It’s best to check in with valued contacts from time to time anyway, to promote the health and strength of your professional network.

3. Confirm contact details and preferences

You’ll want to confirm how your references would like to be contacted by your potential employers. Would they prefer that hiring managers reach out by email or phone? Do they want to use their company contact details or a personal email address or mobile phone number? You may also want to ask them what days and times are generally best to reach them.

These simple steps can help ensure a hiring manager can connect with your references with ease, and your references will have ample time to talk about what you’d bring to the table.

4. Format your list of professional references

You took time to craft a compelling resume and cover letter that look good. You should do the same for your list of professional references. Use the same fonts and format as your other job application materials. Also, ensure the list is free of spelling errors.

The list should include complete contact information, including the person’s name, job title, and employer, and their preferred contact information and best times of availability. Consider adding a line or a brief paragraph to each reference that describes your relationship or a project you worked on together that highlights your skills. An example: “I worked closely with this senior executive for a year, helping her to implement a new business system and train staff in her department.”

5. Customize your reference list for each job

You may want to create different lists of references for different job opportunities. For example, certain colleagues and bosses from your past may know what a great intern you were, while others know you from the time after you became an executive assistant.

Your ability to customize a list of professional references for a specific job will depend on the depth of your career experience and breadth of your professional network, of course. And it could be that the three to four contacts on your core list are the only people any hiring manager would need to call to verify your skills and work history and learn a bit more about you.

6. Give your references a heads up (again!)

If you know a prospective employer is ready to start checking references, alert your contacts that they might receive a call or email soon. You can help prepare them by letting them know the specific company and position you’re in the running for, and the job criteria. For instance, if the position requires elevated technical skills and communication abilities, you could remind your references that you were always (and gladly) the go-to person for colleagues who needed help learning new tech tools.

7. Be prompt in expressing gratitude

After you’re hired, don’t wait long to thank your references for their help. Share the good news and let them know how much you appreciate their willingness to speak on your behalf. You never know when you’ll need to ask them to be there for you again. Make a point to offer to help them down the line too.

Keeping your list of professional references organized and up to date does take some time and effort. But it can make all the difference in your job search success — and even the trajectory of your career.

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