How To Cultivate A Good Job Reference

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John M. O’Connor Forbes Councils MemberForbes Coaches Council COUNCIL POST | Paid ProgramLeadership


John M. O’Connor (Career Pro Inc.) is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina.


In today’s working world, there is lost treasure and a lost art, and it is called providing an excellent reference. In the old days when the internet did not exist and dinosaurs walked the earth, people would call for a reference and spend quality time on the phone. On occasion, a reference would be asked for coffee or a short in-person meeting if they could do it.

Now the practice of taking lots of time with a person’s references just seems a thing of the past. If you are a candidate trying to hide something, that can actually be good. Reference checkers who don’t take the time may miss a reason not to hire you. Good for you. But if your references really matter and someone doesn’t call them, you lose an edge when you are trying to get hired.

Here are some of the critical issues you need to know to ask for to get a great reference:

Use written reference letters. Ask! Many people do not realize that you can ask for a reference letter. In the old days, you would need a written reference on company stationery, and you could be expected to provide that reference at the in-person interview. People not having three written references copied on nice paper would often have a clear disadvantage. When is the last time you interviewed someone who handed you a written reference signed on company stationery? Can’t remember when? Neither can I. When is the last time you offered a written reference this way or even sent a reference letter via email? Not often, right? Be different and old-school unique, and if it is difficult, help your references craft their messages about you.

To stand out: Use nice written artifacts — bring in or scan and send written reference letters that go into detail about your capabilities and performance.

Nurture your references right now. With over 28 years in career services, I coach people seemingly every week as they start their career searches. I often field questions about who should be their reference and how many they need. But I have this question for them: When is the last time you had a conversation with your references? They often tell me they haven’t really kept up with their references.

My advice is to keep up with your references by telling them what you are doing and showing them any new collateral such as resumes, LinkedIn profiles, cover letters and core search strategies. Above all, keep your reference relationships warm, and thank them all along the way. Then you can ask them to write you a reference letter and a LinkedIn written reference. You should also verify their cell number, email and any other contact information. They are standing in the gap for you, so take care of them.

To stand out: Coach your references, and keep them updated on job search progress as well as what stories you want them to tell and what they might expect as the pace of your search heats up.

Go beyond the traditional references. What is stopping you from using video to record a reference for yourself? What’s stopping you from using a short audio conversation about you from a reference and sending it in a Dropbox-type file to a prospective interviewer or company as further tangible evidence of your skills and capabilities? It may be bold, but if they are making a business decision about you and want to see creativity, then it may help you stand out from the crowd. Can you show someone an article you wrote with someone who is a reference, the PDF from a PowerPoint you presented with them or pictures from a professional meeting you attended? Be creative about how you present and display your value to a potential employer.

To stand out: Go beyond the minimums when you engage with and speak to an employer. If you have enthusiastic fans as references, let them be creative with you to show a potential employer your value. Don’t limit yourself to the age-old standards.

The key to getting a great reference is to keep your references relevant. It helps to pick highly credible people who are in your industry and who can attest to your specific talents for a specific role. It is also important to creatively engage them in the process of the marketing of you. Do not let your references wonder about what they should do or how they should respond to someone. Care for them, and treat them as what they are: the key component of your next career move. Ask them to go old- and new school with you. Get them to share the stories of you that you want them to convey to anyone who may call or email them. Ask them to be proactive for you in your career search and a part of the strategy you have to obtain your next employment, your next work-life mission.Forbes Coaches Council is an invitation-only community for leading business and career coaches. Do I qualify?

John M. O’Connor is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina.