When you're trying to land a new job, you'll probably need to give references: names of former employers who are willing to talk to prospective employers about you. If you really want that new job, you'll have to make sure that your references will be willing to say something positive about your work -- and won't just limit their comments to your name, rank, and serial number.
Unfortunately, many employers these days are understandably wary of giving out information about current or former employees. Even employers who want to help out are often fearful that they will be sued by an employee if they say something unflattering. For this reason, many employers have adopted an official policy of giving out only the most basic information about all employees and former employees, usually limited to job title, dates of employment, and final salary, even for their most stellar former employees.
Because solid references often mean the difference between a job offer and a rejection letter, it's important to line up references who will help you seal the deal. This means choosing the right people to serve as references, making sure they have positive things to say about your work, and making it easy for prospective employers to find them.
Make a List of Reference Prospects
Start by putting together a list of people who might be good references. Choose only those people who have had a chance to observe your work first-hand, such as former supervisors or managers. A reference from someone who hardly knows you is unlikely to impress a prospective employer. Similarly, you should select people who have been responsible for overseeing your work -- in other words, those who are above you on the corporate ladder, not your coworkers and associates. Even the most glowing recommendation from a coworker won't carry as much weight with a prospective employer as a few kind words from a supervisor.
As you compile your list, consider the qualities your prospective employer will be looking for. Who can best speak to those qualities? Once you consider the career path you're trying to follow, you'll probably see that certain references will be in a better position to help you than others.
Contact Potential References
Once you have list of prospects, call each one and ask to meet with them briefly. You have two goals at this meeting: to find out whether you should use that person as a reference and, if so, to provide the information your reference will need to give a strong recommendation.
At the meeting, explain your career goals, what type of jobs you are applying for, and why you believe you are a good candidate for those jobs. Ask whether your prospect would be willing to serve as a reference. And be sure to bring along a copy of your resume and any important documents that might help trigger your prospect's memory about the good work you did -- for example, a report you wrote for an important client or an award for outstanding performance.
Try to find out what your prospect would say about various aspects of your job performance. It's probably easiest to ask about this directly, as long as you think you will receive an honest answer. If you're concerned that your prospect might have criticisms of your work, let him or her know that you believe your references will be a crucial part of getting a job, and that you will need strong support. This should encourage your prospect to be up front with you about what type of reference he or she is willing to provide.
As you evaluate this information, remember that a quality that works against you in one job might work for you in another. For example, if a former supervisor plans to say that you were excellent in coming up with large concepts and creative ideas, but sometimes fell short in handling detail work, that might be a good reference for a job coming up with themes for advertising campaigns -- but a poor one for a job writing and editing copy on those same advertisements.
Providing References to Prospective Employers
Once you find several people who are willing and able to provide you with a good reference, treat them like the valuable asset they are: Give out their names and numbers sparingly.
Prepare a list for prospective employers that includes your references' names, job titles, and contact information, but don't simply staple it to your resume and submit it to every job opening in town. Instead, let prospective employers know that you can provide references (often done by stating "References available upon request" at the bottom of a resume), and then make your references' names and contact information available only if asked. This will save your references from having to answer phone calls and email requests for information from employers who aren't seriously considering your application.
Stay in touch with your references. Update them about your achievements and goals, make sure you have current contact information, and ask them to let you know if someone contacts them for information about you. Make sure to let your references know when you land a job -- and thank them for their help.
Want to Learn More?
Nolo's Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Repa (Nolo), is an invaluable reference for every worker. It offers clear and concise advice and strategies on enforcing your employee rights.