Your References List Can Help Market You For Employment – Here’s How

By JESSIE RICHARDSON, CPRW / Contributing Editor, Bradley-Morris, Inc. and

If you are interviewing for a job, chances are your references list will be called upon to testify to your work performance before an offer is made. Recruiters and hiring managers know that jobseekers are going to reference only those with glowing things to say about them. So why has this drill become a hiring process standard? I aim to shed some light on the widely misunderstood and underestimated reference list and assist you in developing one as an effective marketing tool.


The “Who” of References

On average, employers check three references per candidate, so have at least that many ready and willing to vouch for you. But who should you ask? Generally speaking, the more impressive the reference’s title, the more impressive the testament. However, while this may be an effective strategy for some upper-level managers and stand-out performers, make sure you don’t run the risk of anonymity in listing top brass. The last thing you want your potential employer to hear from the executive-level leadership at your previous organization is, “Jane who?”

Conversely, listing a subordinate is tempting and could bolster your reputation as an inspiring and approachable leader, but reader beware - I have seen this tactic fail. When pressed about a boss’ weaknesses, one reference confessed she was often the victim of a lost temper instead of saying something like, “He just cares too much about the job which has led to occasional overzealousness”. Needless to say, the candidate did not get the offer. The safest way to go is with a direct supervisor with day-to-day knowledge of your work. Finally, keep it professional. Character references from friends and family members are of little value to hiring managers.

Once you have selected your references list, ask for their permission. Don’t ask, “Would you be a reference for me?” Rather, ask “Do you feel you know my work well enough to give me a good reference?” That way, your potential reference has an easy out if he or she is not comfortable with being contacted and you can be assured that those who say “of course” will be enthusiastic and positive about your performance. Get their most up-to-date contact information and provide them with an updated copy of your resume, skills, and accolades. Ask them how and when they prefer to be contacted.

Referencing your references has become common practice. Because recruiters know you are going to reference those with only great things to say about you, they may ask, “Who, other than you, has direct knowledge of Jane’s work performance? Can I have their contact information?” So ask your reference the same question – “Who would you recommend as another reference for me?” If they name someone you are uncomfortable with, suggest an alternate.


Prepare Ahead of Time

References should only be provided during the interview. Never include them in your resume or attach them to job applications. Have a prepared document, with the same header as your resume, ready to present to a hiring manager. There is no need to list “references available” on your resume as it is implied in the hiring process. In addition to references, you may be asked for your supervisor’s contact information. However, prospective employers should get your permission before contacting your current supervisor to avoid jeopardizing your current position.

Letters of recommendation often make for better references than testimony via email or telephone. Furthermore, they could save both you and your potential employer time and energy. When leaving a position, ask for a letter of recommendation from your manager. As time passes and people move on, it's easy to lose track of previous supervisors and peers, especially in the military. With letters, you'll have written documentation of your credentials to give to prospective employers. If you haven't done so already, it's never too late to go back and ask for letters from previous managers and associates to include in your personal files. Save any and all “pats on the back” as they will prove to be invaluable weapons in your job search arsenal.

The reference list is aesthetically unassuming, commonly considered a formality, and often an afterthought to the resume and interview. However, when developed properly, it can be your most effective marketing tool. References can make or break the deal. A little forethought and preparation will go a long way in clinching your job offer.


Jessie Richardson directs operations for, the military-to-civilian transition experts. She is a Naval Academy graduate and a regular commentator on job search best practices for military-experienced job seekers. Her e-mail address is jrichardson at militaryresumes dot com.