There was a time when all resumes ended with the phrase "References Available Upon Request." That time has passed. If that line is still on your resume, delete it. You're wasting space and stating the obvious.
OK, now let's talk about the references themselves. Do you even need them anymore? If so, who should they be? And when do you hand over your reference list to the employer?
This post will answer those questions, and give you the long and short of what you need to know about employment references in today's job market.
1) Do I need references?
Short Answer: Yes!
Long Answer: It's true that many employers today don't bother checking references. They rely on the web and their own instincts when they hire someone. As one CEO put it, "Why would I expect an objective opinion from someone the candidate hand-picked?" But plenty of other employers do check references. They want to talk to people who've worked with you and know you. Since you don't know which category a prospective employer falls into, be prepared with a list of references, just in case.
2) Who should be on my references list?
Short answer: Ideally, three past supervisors or colleagues who liked you.
Long answer: Choose at least three people who are willing and able to comment directly on your work abilities, and say positive things about you. Former bosses (if you parted on good terms) or your current boss (if s/he knows about and supports your job search) will have the most credibility. Other acceptable references might include a peer who served on a team with you; or a former direct-report (if you're seeking a managerial role). If you're a student or recent grad, consider professors, teachers, school administrators, advisors, or coaches. Family, friends, or others who only know you socially are usually poor choices for references.
3) What information should I include on my list of references?
Short answer: Name, job title, company, phone, email, and relationship.
Long answer: References are part of your complete package of career documents, so the header (with your own contact information) should match your resume, cover letter, and any follow-up letters you present to the employer. Always verify that all of your references' contact information is up-to-date and error-free.
Here's an example of what a reference listing might look like:
Algernon Schloffeldinger, IT Manager
(508) 555-5555 x0005
Relationship: Former supervisor (2004 -2006)
4) What will employers ask my references?
Short answer: Anything they want.
Long answer: That's right, anything. It's up to the person providing the reference to decide how to answer. Employers might ask about things like your skills, talents, honesty, work habits, reliability, initiative, learning speed, or ability to work with others. Or, they might want to verify statements you made in your resume or interview.
5) When should I provide my list of references?
Short answer: Upon request—not before!
Long answer: Do NOT send references with your resume unless the job description specifically asks. Have them ready on paper at your first interview, and electronically for emailing. It's fine to offer them at the end of the first interview, but the hiring manager may not want them yet. If employers want references, they usually only ask for them from a short list of finalists.
6) How can I be sure I'll get only positive references?
Short answer: Pre-screen and prepare your references beforehand.
Long answer: You can't be sure, but you can minimize the risk of a bad reference by always getting permission before listing anyone as a reference. Call and ask the person if they'd be comfortable speaking positively about you, and give them an easy way to back out if they're not (e.g., say something like, "I totally understand if you have a policy against giving references.") What you don't want is a reference who says yes just to be polite, but later gives you an unenthusiastic endorsement.
Once you've selected your references, make sure they are well-prepared to help you. In a recent WSJ.com article, Elizabeth Garone summed it up this way:
"You don't want a reference to be caught off guard when he or she receives that all-important call. If you are planning on listing someone, send an email thanking him or her for agreeing to serve as a reference and include a copy of the job description. It couldn't hurt to refresh a reference's memory by including a list of your responsibilities and achievements from when you worked together."
In short, the secret to reference success is to prepare ahead of time, choose people who will speak highly of you, and make it easy for them to do so.
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