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Manage Your References - And Your Job Prospects - With These 10 Simple Steps

So you’ve completed the first round of interviews – and perhaps the second – with flying colors towards that cherished new job.  At this point, your prospective new employer will begin to check the quality of your references and recommendations from previous employers.  These recommendations will make-or-break your prospects – have you done your due diligence in ensuring that they will be an asset, not albatross, to your job application?

About half of all references that get checked receive an assessment of mediocre-to-poor, according to Heidi M. Allison, Managing Director of Allison & Taylor Reference Checking Inc. So it is very possible that the great job you lost out on at the last moment had nothing to do with your lack of skills, or being overqualified. It could have had more to do with what one of your references or past employers said about you. If you are concerned that someone, somewhere, might be giving you a less-than-stellar review, there is a one-in-two chance that you are right. That's a frightening percentage when your livelihood is at stake.  

So, you are well advised to take more control of your career momentum by finding out precisely what each of your potential references will say about you. When you know who is going to say what about you, you can pass on your best references with greater confidence. Also, you may well have the opportunity to prevent your negative references from offering up negative commentary about you.  Here are ten winning ways to utilize your references:

1. Make a list of all your prospective references. Begin with the first job that is relevant in management of your career today. You need to select those who have carefully observed your job performance. Your references need to have seen you in action, hopefully performing well in adverse conditions. But beware: whether you list them or not, many (if not all) of your past employers will be contacted. Be sure to gather all important contact data about every potential reference, including: name, title, company, address, telephone/fax number, and e-mail address. (You may be asked to provide this data by a prospective employer.)  Other individuals that may make useful references include colleagues, subordinates, and suppliers and clients.

2. Narrow the list. After you have made your list of references, select those that you feel will be most willing to give you an excellent report. A typical list of references should include five to ten names, depending on the amount of experience a candidate has accumulated.

3. Contact each reference personally. Send each reference a note (visiting them personally, if possible, is even better) stating that you are seeking new employment and that you would like to use them as a reference. Be sure to share with them your current resume and let them know of the position you are applying for, as well as the type of qualities the company is likely seeking. Give them the impression that their reference is critical to your obtaining the job.

4. Confirm your personal information. Refresh your reference’s memory regarding the position you held while working with them. Also, it is a good idea to visit the HR Department and verify that all information in your personnel file is correct.

5. Conduct a personal exit interview with your references. Review your past responsibilities and remind them of tangible successes you achieved with them/the company.  Review with each reference what they will say in response to questions regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Try to learn what your references are going to say about you. Do not take any criticism personally, or become defensive - if they feel you are receptive to their comments regarding self-improvement, it may lead them to say you are open-minded and that you strive to grow professionally. To sum up, one of the key skills in the workplace is effective communication - your reference will feel comfortable stating you are a good communicator if you have filled them in on the “who, why, what and when” and have appeared receptive to their comments.

6. Be prepared ahead of time. It pays to take the time early in your job search to identify and prepare your references. The last thing you want is to lose out on a good position because you did not have your references organized, validated and prioritized.  You can even use your references as effective networking tools in asking them to keep your name out in front of those with whom they associate.  Again, tell your references what you have been doing since the last time you worked with them. Not only is this the courteous thing to do; it also keeps them updated on your career. Any reference that is well informed about the progression of your career will be a much better reference. Lastly, ask them if they know of any current job openings in your field.

7. Pay attention to detail. Always check to be sure of the correct telephone number, area code & company name when giving out references. With today's mergers and technology changes, things can change daily. Should you list an incorrect telephone number, or if a reference has taken a position elsewhere, it will appear as though you are out of touch with your references.

8. Communicate with your references at “crunch time”. When a specific offer is on the horizon let your references know the company and that you will be using them as a reference. They will feel more comfortable giving out information about you or to return a prospective employer’s call in a more timely fashion if you have forewarned them ahead of time.

9. Follow-up with your references. When you get your new position, make sure you call each reference and thank them for the role they played. Going forward, keep them posted about your career – they will appreciate your staying in touch and will be more likely to serve as a reference once again at a later date.

10. Check your references professionally. Don’t leave the impact of your references to chance.  If you are not 100% convinced that your references and past employers will relay positive comments about you to prospective employers, have them checked out. A professional employment verification and reference-checking firm can either put your mind at ease, or supply you with the critical information and evidence that has been blocking your job searching efforts.

Heidi M. Allison is the Managing Director of (an Allison & Taylor Company), the nation's oldest professional employment verification and reference checking firm. Please visit their site at or call 800-890-5645 to learn more about this valuable service.

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