How to Provide a Winning List of References to a Prospective Employer

How to Provide a Winning List of References to a Prospective Employer

So you’re ready for your next big gig and want to solicit your network to rave about your skills to your next employer. You may have passed all your interview rounds or are preemptively gathering contact details to share with a prospective employer. Be sure to follow this checklist to ensure you are covering your bases and securing the right promoters that will ensure your success in landing the job. Before we begin, to all those this applies to, I recommend removing the old school ‘References available upon request’ line from your resume and wait for your prospective employer to ask you before you promise on delivering. It also forms a cleaner, lighter look on your resume.

While some employers do not require references or may be open to waiving the requisite altogether; many companies have strict policies (especially in banking or professional services) that require a certain level/seniority for eligible references as well as the number of references needed to proceed in hiring you. Many companies outsource their background check process which may at times include an external party reaching out to your list of references. The more senior the role or the smaller the company, reference checks are likely to be conducted by the internal recruiter or the hiring manager themselves. Get well acquainted with your prospective employer’s process once they initiate the conversation. It helps to know your audience and deliver contacts appropriately.

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Step One: Identify your cheerleaders 

Ask multiple people in your network at all levels or as instructed by your prospective employer. Think of past managers, peers as well as subordinates (if you were in a leadership role). Think about the type of role you are targeting and who has the most knowledge related to the skills you want highlighted. More importantly, who carries the most respect for you? Select people that have worked closely with you and are qualified to share insight, but more importantly, who is likely to promote your candidacy? If you doubt the strength of your relationship or think someone may be highly critical of you on the phone, do NOT ask them to provide a reference! It may jeopardize your chances of landing the role. Identify your champions and make it a habit from now on to maintain your relationships with them so you can call on them for similar favors in the future. 

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Step Two: Have a back up list of references ready 

Some folks may not feel comfortable getting involved or they may simply not make the time. That is their prerogative; politely acknowledge their consideration (if they happen to respond) and move on to your next best options. In some cases you may be able to manage their pushback; however, if they are hesitating in saying yes, they may not be as reliable as you need them to be for the task at hand. Some companies have strict policies on instructing employees or managers to redirect reference requests to HR who may provide an employment verification (names and dates) only versus a broader reference check. I will be posting more on what the difference between the two (employment verification versus reference check) is, soon. In that case, you may want to consider negotiating with your prospective employer on collecting a mix of references and employee verifications, or moving forward with less references than they may have originally asked for. Be mindful of how lack of support from your network may look as though you have failed to maintain positive relationships as a professional. If you are behind in keeping up with former colleagues or managers, start now.

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Step Three: Coach each of your references on what to say 

Now that you have made your A list and B list of references and verified they are on board to provide a stellar narrative of your career history, it’s on you to coach them towards success! They may be wondering what to say on the call especially if this is their first time providing a reference. Think over the following questions. What should your new employer know about you? What do you want highlighted? How do you like to be rewarded? What is an area of improvement you are comfortable with your reference speaking to? What are some topics or incidents you want excluded from the narrative? One such example would be punctuality. If you worked in a flexible work hours environment and leveraged it, be sure to ask your contacts to provide context where needed to ensure your persona is coming across as professional, dependable, meeting the needs of your next role and overall positive.

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Step Four: Initiate scheduling

Scheduling the reference call may not fall directly on your plate but I insist, you can add value by asking each reference provider for 3 dates and time slots they are available to take the call. Passing on their availability along with their contact information to your prospective employer not only makes you look polished, it proves you are thinking ahead and value efficiency. You can reduce the back and forth communication it often takes between your contacts and prospective employer before actually having the call. It may lead you to pass your reference check much sooner and avoid having a good reference provider flake on you as time progresses and they get busy. It also minimizes the risk of communication gaps in communication with other parties (third party vendor, junior recruiter, scheduler, busy hiring manager etc) at this stage.

Step Five: Follow up to confirm and express gratitude

Confirm the reference call has been set up and confirm once the call has been made. Act as the intermediary between each of your contacts and your prospective employer. Assist in any plans they may have made to reschedule the call. Ensure to thank your reference providers and perhaps offer to return the favor for them in the future should they need a good reference at some point. Remember to maintain relationships with the good ones. Your respect amongst your network goes a long way in showcasing your influence and reputation as a valued professional for years to come.