References: why they're important, how to get them, and whom (not) to ask
Deciding on the right hire can be quite a puzzle for hiring teams. All of the pieces must fit together to provide a holistic picture of a candidate. Employers have to obtain as such information as they can about multiple candidates, in a short amount of time and with as little effort and manpower as possible.
The reference checking stage of an interview usually doesn’t take place until the hiring team has eliminated most of the candidates and is about to make a decision about who to hire. It is a
candidate’s responsibility to talk themselves up in an interview; the point of a reference is to confirm
that others can substantiate the claims that the applicant is making. That is why it is so important that you choose carefully when you decide from whom you are going to request a reference. The company will use the information provided by the reference to either confirm their choice or choose between two equally strong candidates.
Candidates are usually asked to provide three references, one of which is a current or former supervisor.
How do you pick the best reference?
Good references should be able to speak to your work ethic, competency, and abilities. It is usually best
to have at least one reference who can speak to your skills related to the job. Good references can
-- Former or current co-workers who were able to directly view your work. You should not use
these for all three references, but one or two are all right.
-- Faculty, especially those from major specific courses (or better yet, the courses most related to
the job for which you are applying).
-- Former supervisors (we’ll talk about current supervisors in a minute).
-- Faculty advisors for clubs and orgs.
-- Individuals who supervised your work in volunteer or community activities.
Some individuals should never be used as references, even if you believe they will have positive things to say about you. These include:
-- Family members (even if they were your supervisor), because they will never be able to give a
fully objective perspective, and even if they could, employers will assume they were biased.
-- Friends or other people who did not directly observe your work. Those would be personal
references, and if the only thing they can say about you is that you are nice, then there is not a
lot of value added by their reference.
-- Current supervisors. This is not a never situation, but use caution when choosing to use current
supervisors. Many people do not disclose to their supervisor that they are seeking new
employment because it may put their current employment in jeopardy. The exception to this is
in cases of limited-term employment, such as internship supervisors.
Always ask people if they are willing to serve as a reference. When you ask someone to be
your reference, make sure to not only ask if they are willing, but what type of reference you can expect.
This is a crucial step because some people feel that they have to say yes, even if they’d give you a
mediocre reference. It also allows you to choose the references that are strongest.
Make sure to get all of your reference’s contact information including email addresses, mailing address,
and phone numbers. I also suggest asking for a backup email address, in case they ever leave that job or
change their contact information. You should also provide each reference with a copy of your resume
(preferably digitally), so that they can remember who you are in case it is several months before they
receive a call.
I recommend lining up at least 5 references, so that you can shuffle them in case they are getting a
bunch of calls from employers, to avoid reference fatigue. You will usually only use 3 per job and you do
not need to shuffle them for each job you apply for, only if the first set was contacted multiple times. It
is also wise to let your references know when to expect to hear from an employer if it is possible. You
can email them after you have had an in-person interview if you feel that you did well in that interview,
just to let them know it is a possibility.
One last point. Just because you didn’t list someone as a reference, doesn’t mean the employer will not
contact them. It is generally frowned upon for employers to call current supervisors. But it is possible an employer will ask around
their network to hear more about you, or to contact any current employees of the organization to see if
they know you. We have had Capitol alumni speak with hiring managers about a current student who
is a candidate for a job with their company.
This is why having a bad reputation can be so harmful. Excluding someone as a reference does not mean the employer will not hear about you from that person.
Lastly, it is important you thank your references, but no need to buy a gift. A note (preferably handwritten, but by email if you cannot get a written note to them) is the best gift to give for your appreciation in this situation.
As always, if you need any assistance in the job search process, email careers@CapTechU.edu to request
an individual appointment with the Office of Career Services at Capitol Technology University.