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While professional references tend to play a supporting role in the job search process, don’t underestimate their value. They can tip the scales in your favor when decision-makers are on the fence between you and another potential candidate.
Most employers will want to be able to contact and communicate by phone with a group of people who can speak about your strengths and weakness and fit for the job you are seeking. In fact, one well-written/well-spoken reference can likely close the deal on your new job.
How Do You Ask Someone to be a Reference?
- Give them a call. Catch up with some pleasant chitchat, and then ask them directly if he/she would be willing or available to provide you with a reference.
- Email them. If calling out of the blue is awkward then send him a quick note outlining your request.
- Be Specific. Ask for exactly what you need. You may need to just list his name and number or for him to write a reference letter on your behalf. Be clear about the job you’re applying for, what you want the reference to cover and when you need it.
- Don’t Take it Personally. He may be uncomfortable providing a reference for a number of reasons. If he states it directly or you sense his discomfort, politely thank him for his time but let him off the hook. Of course, continue to maintain a professional relationship with him.
I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if a co-worker constitutes a professional reference. While the answer if generally “no” (because prospective bosses want to speak with former bosses), there are a few exceptions to the rule if they can truly speak to your professional capabilities.
When is it appropriate for a co-worker to be a reference?
- If you worked with them on team initiatives and they can testify to your reliability, dedication and productivity.
- If they can attest to your work ethic and professionalism.
- If they can answer questions about your reliability as to how you problem-solve, and feel comfortable endorsing you from a number of perspectives.
- If they are the only point-of-contact at your current/previous place of employment (i.e. your manager or supervisor is completely unavailable).
- If your relationship with your supervisor or manager was conflict-ridden, and if (and only if) it was clear you won’t receive a fair evaluation of you skills.
The last one is a tricky conundrum. We’ve all worked for bosses who…how do I say this in a politically correct way? They lacked a level of professional integrity. They might have even been out to get you based on their own shortcomings and possibly resent you for your work ethic and productivity.
How Does the Whole Process Work, Then?
- Make a list of anyone you might want to ask at any of your previous jobs (or current one). Then narrow it down to 2-3 people.
- Choose wisely since they should be able to speak highly of you personally and professionally; your character and your accomplishments are important to hiring officials.
- Call each of your chosen references and ask nicely. For example say, “Would you be comfortable serving as a reference in my upcoming job hunt?” or “Do you have time in the next few weeks to serve as my reference?”
- Give him an idea of what type of position you’re applying for (you can even send over the job description); this will make it easy for them to best showcase how well your skills and accomplishments fit your desired position.
- Keep it simple: this should match the font and style of your resume and cover letter. For each reference, include a name, title, organization, division or department, telephone number, and email address.
- Demonstrate your professionalism by thanking each reference with a handwritten note soon after they agree to help you. Make sure to let them know immediately each time you submit their name as a reference, so they’ll be ready if they’re called (email is fine for this). And when you score that sweet new position, or even if you don’t, make sure you let your references know the outcome. Following up with an update is part of maintaining a good relationship for the long-term.
Such a small part of the job-hunting process, but it really is the little things in life that generate the most impact. Plus, this is just more great practice to hone your professional speaking skills as you climb the ladder of success.