Organizations may or may not use your references. In fact, the weight placed on them can vary from one hiring authority to another within the same company. If an organization uses references, it’s a part of their process to gauge how candidates might fit into their team. It’s as simple as that. A good reference verifies and expands upon information provided in other parts of the process. Despite what some people might feel, it’s not an attempt to “dig up dirt.” Honestly, hiring authorities are too busy for that anyway. They don’t need the drama. They need a team member.
Still, if you’re an active candidate or just testing the waters, you should have a plan for navigating this part of the process. While you may still see requests for previous supervisors on some application forms, this is a pretty outdated practice. Further, one of the main motivations for candidates to seek new opportunities is some form of friction with management. Don’t let this stop you. No one has veto power over your career, so don’t give it to them. Most organizations understand that calling a candidate’s current employer may not go over very well and could make things awkward should they check references and then choose not to hire that person. For that reason, even these outdated forms will include a “permission to contact” for each supervisor. However, there’s a lot more that you can do with references than choose which box to check.
Finding Your References
First of all, and I cannot stress this enough, ASK someone if they are comfortable giving a professional reference. Then, be specific about what particular aspects of your professional performance you’d like them to highlight. If they hesitate at all, take the gift. Thank them for their time and find a different reference. There can be some very valid reasons that they may not wish to be reference, and it doesn’t mean that they don’t have regard for you. However, should someone call your references, do you really want them to speak to someone who, for whatever reason, is even a bit hesitant about your qualifications?
Do not provide references until the hiring authority requests them. As with all other parts of the application process, do not send material that is not requested. Most people will put “references available upon request” at the conclusion of their resume and that’s fine. If the request for references is specifically stated, include your referees’ contact info in your standard resume. This respect’s the hiring authority’s time.
Do My References Need to Include a Past Supervisor?
Back to the supervisor question. If a candidate is unable to provide references for anyone who supervised their work that can be a red flag. However, even if you have glowing references from every past supervisor that only gives the hiring authority a partial insight into your professional persona. Before you consider applying for a role, you should informally ask current and former colleagues if they’d be able to speak to your expertise. This doesn’t need to be dramatic or overblown. Simply, “should I ever explore an opportunity, would you be comfortable serving as a reference for my abilities/accomplishments/ in X”. Remember, a prospective employer isn’t looking to hire a best friend, so you want your references to help a prospective employer see the value that you will add to their organization, not just that you’re “nice person.”
Who should I ask to be a reference?
Generally, you’re going to want to ask people who have seen you performing tasks in a responsible position. The most obvious references will be people you worked for and people you worked with within your organization, as well as colleagues from other organizations. One valuable reference that many people overlook is someone who YOU supervised. Especially if the position you’re applying for includes supervising direct reports, it’s good to have a sense of what it’s like to work for you. Generally, this should be someone you no longer directly supervise. While it’s not always possible to have this type of reference, it can be a great one to have.
If you’re returning to the workplace after an extended absence, think about times that you had responsibility even if not for pay. If you’ve volunteered in your community, people who “supervised” you there or who worked with you can be great references. The one caveat that I would add here is that, unless you reported directly to them, you probably should not ask clergy for a professional reference. If you organized the annual BBQ, my suggestion would be that the chair of the council would be better situated to speak to your achievements there than your clergy member.
How many references should I have?
If a prospective employer does ask for references, their team will probably only have the time to check with around three people. This does not mean that you should only have three references ready to go. Your application for one role may be enhanced by someone who can speak to your technical skills. Another another role may be more interested in your managerial accomplishments. Your career has far more than three facets, so bear that in mind when selecting your references.
Generally an organization will not speak to your references until after they’ve spoken with you. As part of your conversation with them, you might even ask if they’d like you to provide references. Some organizations will tell you that they don’t check references. That’s okay. If it’s not part of their process, don’t worry about it. If they do tell you that they’re going to check references, send a quick “heads up” notification to your referees. This isn’t the least bit “cheating”. People appreciate this. It allows them the chance to collect their thoughts, and to look for the call or email as opposed to getting a call out of the blue.
I am finding that references are less important today than they were even ten years ago. However, this varies widely from industry to industry and even person to person. The important thing for you as a candidate is, just like all other aspects of the job search, is to be prepared to provide the best information possible to let your prospective employer see that value that you can bring to a new role.