The care and feeding of your references

Funny thing about references. We all need them, we all have them, and very few of us really know how to use them. It’s kinda like me and power tools, but that’s a whole different story.

As an independent career coach and former hiring manager (more than 40 years in all), I’ve seen every possible misuse and abuse of references — an unforgivable offense. Whereas not succeeding in an interview might be because we couldn’t hit the interviewer’s curveball, mishandling references is the equivalent of an unforced error in tennis.

It shouldn’t happen, and when it does, it’s our fault. And it’s always because we haven’t given it sufficient thought. There’s more to this than just having a list of names to call.

Approximately 25 percent of candidates on employers’ short lists are eliminated after references were contacted. Like I said: unforgivable. References are supposed to seal the deal, not blow it. So here’s the plan.

Line up references in advance — long before your first interview or even before jumping into a job search to begin with. Your references must be committed to you in the long run. You and they should have an ongoing relationship, and you should be able to call on them when needed. And it should be understood in advance. Scrambling for references situationally is less than ideal.

• Have more than enough. Employers usually ask for three, but you should have a list of six or more, so you can call on the three that will be most relevant to any given situation.

• References should be current. Employers aren’t interested in references from 15 years ago unless it’s your last reference before your current boss who can’t know you’re looking. Even then, old references are generally weak. But if that’s the case, explain to your potential new employer that this shows solid work history and loyalty.

• Then, have other kinds of references. Co-workers, mentors, clients and vendors — depending on your situation, of course — can all be effective. A reasonable employer will understand the above scenario (and others).

• Deserve your references. Let’s assume your reference can attest to your job worthiness and that he likes you, too. Now let’s assume he hasn’t heard from you in four years, and you’re now asking for his help all of a sudden. Now, what can we assume? Keep close and in touch.

• References should be passionate. Anyone, including a computer, can verify your dates of employment. Your references have to show excitement and enthusiasm about you. That wins.

• References should be prepared. OK, so you’ve lined up your references in advance, but without prepping them on this particular opportunity, on the details of it and exactly what you need them to say this time, you’re not fully prepared either.

• References should focus on accomplishments. “She’s a great team player” is not enough. Just like your resume is filled with accomplishments (right?), your references should be telling your potential employer exactly the same. Want the best way to validate your accomplishments? Ask your reference to do it. That’s strong.

• Don’t list references on your resume. Ever! Your resume is the prologue to the drama we call the hiring process; references are the final act. Putting them on your resume is out of sequence and can weaken their impact if some overly anxious hiring manager or human resources clerk decides to tap into them too early.

• Don’t submit references until asked. There are two reasons. First, the best time to prep your reference is at the latest possible moment, including what’s been discussed in all your interviews. Second, being asked for references should signal a genuine interest in you joining the team.

Until you’re sure that’s the case, you should keep your references’ names sacred. If used too casually, and your references start getting too many calls that ultimately amount to nothing, you run the risk of your precious references asking you to use someone else because this has become a bother. And that, sorry to say, is not temporary. It’s a divorce.

• Ask references to keep you posted. You want to know — immediately — when they’ve been called and what was discussed. Ask for a thorough debrief so you know what you still need to do, if anything.

• Thank your references. Show gratitude with a hand-written note — not email — whether you got the job or not. This is not only polite; it’s how you keep your references, too.

In short, if you handle your references better than I handle power tools, you’ll be fine.

Career coach and corporate adviser Eli Amdur has been authoring his weekly “Career Coach” column since 2003, and is the author of his acclaimed career advice book “It’s Not So Far From Here To There: The thinking person’s guide to well-managed career.” Adjunct professor of two graduate-level leadership courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, he is also active on the speaker circuit, delivering presentations on today’s critical employment and leadership issues. Visit his website: You can “like” him at, find him on, and follow him on Twitter.


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