Making the Most of Your References

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By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN

More likely than not, you’ll be asked to provide professional references when you apply for a job. Choosing the right people for your references is important, but how you treat them can make the difference between getting the job and being knocked out of the running.

The first step is to select your references. Think of people you worked for in the past, supervisors and managers with whom you had good working relationships. Your references should be people who are fairly familiar with the work you did so they can attest to your skills, not just your character. Typically you’ll want to provide the names of three or four references to a prospective employer.

Then, get their permission to list them as a reference. You don’t want them to be surprised or caught off guard. Not only is this courteous, but also it ensures that your choice of reference will be comfortable saying positive things about you. If a prospective reference isn’t comfortable giving a reference, she’ll usually politely decline when you ask. Knowing that up front is better than having her speak to a prospective employer and say less than favorable things.

When it comes time to give the references’ names to a prospective employer, call them and let them know what job, or types of jobs, you’re applying for. Discuss the important characteristics for the job so they can highlight these things when they receive a call. Remind your references of your more significant accomplishments and duties while working for them. Don’t expect them to remember everything about everyone who has ever used them as a reference.

It’s also a good idea to send your references a current copy of your resume. This serves as a reminder of the exact dates of your employment, the job title you held, what your specific duties were, and the projects you worked on. It also serves to keep you fresh in her mind. Besides, you never know whom she may talk to that may be looking to hire someone.

Follow-up is a must. Let your references know the outcome of your job search efforts. Ask if they’ve been called and let them know if you’re still looking or if you’ve accepted a new position or weren’t offered a job. Stay in periodic touch with your references, even while not job hunting. Be sure to formally thank them with a note or letter in the event they give you a reference and you wind up getting the job.

Being good to your references makes good sense. Make it easy for them to give you a solid reference by asking their permission, providing them with information, following up, and thanking them. It will pay off in big dividends for you in the long run.

Reprinted with permission from (
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