How to prep your references. Yes, you have to!

Prep your references before the hiring manager calls. Don’t skip this step. Here’s how to do it.

I recently heard yet another story from an acquaintance about getting a surprise call from an employer to be a reference for someone about whom they really didn’t have much good to say. “I thought, ‘really?’” he said. “I’m the best she’s got? That’s not good. I mean, I fired her!”

Being a pretty nice guy, he chose his words carefully. But the woman he found himself having to talk about probably didn’t get the job.

This type of thing is too common. I’m not sure where people get the idea that they can just use someone as a reference without consulting them first, but you really shouldn’t do that. Also, you should try to choose someone who is actually going to say something positive about you.

All this to say, you absolutely must make sure everyone is on the same page before that call comes through. Need more info? Here are some insights and details on how to prep your references:

1. Think carefully about who your references should be.

Hopefully there are enough people out there who will speak highly of you that you have your choice of who to choose from. If something ended badly in a job, or you have serious doubts about how a person might speak about you, choose someone else.

2. Choose someone with whom you’re still in touch.

Nobody likes hearing from someone only when they need something. If possible, choose a reference you speak to at least from time to time. If you don’t have anyone, start reaching out to say hello before you need to ask for a favour.

3. Ask if it’s OK to use them as a reference.

Always ask the person if it’s OK to use them as a reference. The last thing you want is someone to be blindsided by a call from a complete stranger asking questions about you. That could go wrong in so many ways.

4. Be complimentary.

Be sure to let the reference know you’re choosing them because you enjoyed working with them, value their opinion highly, and/or learned so much from them. Or something like that. The point is to prime the pump by saying something complimentary about them so they return the favour when the tie comes.

5. Discuss what they are going to say.

If the opportunity is available to you, have a conversation about how your reference is going to answer specific questions. A recent survey found that the things employers are most likely to ask your references about are your strengths and weaknesses, details of past duties and responsibilities, confirmation of job title and dates of employment, your “preferred work culture” (probably meaning something about what you’re like as a person) and your workplace accomplishments. It might not be possible, but if you’re close enough with the person to go over all this, do so.

5. Give specific points you’d like them to focus on.

Again, this might not be possible with a former superior who is busy and with whom you don’t have a well established relationship (all the more reason to stay in touch) but if the opportunity is available to you, list the strengths, attributes, and accomplishments you would like your reference to highlight. They may even appreciate being handed their talking points, so they don’t have to think about it.

After someone has served as a reference for you, be sure to send a thank-you note.

And if you haven’t stayed in touch with former employers, now is as good a time as any to reach out and say hello. Build a relationship now, so when you need them they will be ready.

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