Employment references play a crucial role in your job search, with 87% of employers stating they conduct reference checks as part of the hiring process.

When a hiring manager asks for your references, it’s a good indication you’re close to receiving a job offer – but it doesn’t mean it’s a done deal just yet. What your references say about you can make or break your chances of securing the position.

With this in mind, it’s critical to select the right people to be your references, maintain those relationships and properly brief them on the roles you are applying for.

Follow the tips below on how to choose, prepare and maintain job references to set yourself up for the best chance of success.

What are job references and why do we need them?

Job references are typically contacts in your professional network who can verify your experience, skills, qualifications, work ethic and character. References can be any of the following:

  • Former or current employers, managers or supervisors

  • Former or current colleagues

  • Former or current clients or customers

  • Advisors or mentors

Employers and recruiters use references to determine the accuracy of the claims you’ve made on your resume and during the interview process, and to gauge whether you would be a good fit for the organisation. They can do this by asking your reference questions over the phone or by email, or by asking for a letter of recommendation.

In many cases, an employer will only ask to contact references for their top candidate or a small shortlist. With this in mind, having strong references is crucial as it can put you ahead of the competition and make or break your chance of being offered the job.

How to choose job references

At any stage of your job search, it’s important to have current and relevant professional references on hand to support you in your job search. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to choose references who:

  • You have worked closely with in the last five years

  • Know your strengths and capabilities well

  • Can confidently speak to your achievements, skills and work ethic

  • Can verify and discuss your previous employment and past performance

This could include current or past managers, managers from other departments with whom you’ve worked closely with, external clients, suppliers or colleagues. Keep in mind you should always ask their permission before listing them as references and double-check that their titles and contact details are correct.

Types of job references

There are three main types of references, each of which can be beneficial in different ways:

Work references

As the name suggests, work references are people you have worked with. This can include your employer, manager, supervisor or colleagues. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to have at least one work reference who can offer first-hand insights into your experience, accomplishments, skills and qualities that employers are looking for.

Academic references

Academic references can include teachers, professors, supervisors and advisors. It can be relevant to include these types of references for roles that emphasise educational credentials, such as graduate jobs and jobs in academia. Choose academic references who can talk about your character, areas of knowledge and work ethic.

Character references

Character references can include friends, community leaders and people in your professional network who can vouch for your character, integrity and reliability. These types of references can be useful if you don’t have any suitable work or academic references, or as a supplement to your main professional references.

How many references should you include?

As a general rule, include at least two references. Having one could raise a red flag for prospective employers. In most cases you can stick to work references only, or if requested by the employer, include a mix of professional references and character references or academic references.

Prepare your job references ahead of time

Make sure your references know you’ll be listing them as a reference so they are in a position to give you a strong, positive referral. Let them know that you are job hunting and will contact them when a reference is required. When that time comes, provide them with a description of the role you have applied for and details on when and by whom they will be contacted.

It’s also worthwhile having a short conversation with your references to share your thoughts on how your experience, skills and attributes are relevant to the role you’re applying for. This will allow them to reinforce relevant aspects of your past performance and highlight qualities about you that are applicable to this new position.

Maintain your pool of employment references

Whenever you change employers, be proactive in asking your manager, supervisor or colleagues if they would be happy to be a reference for you in the future. This will help you maintain a solid list of references and save you from having to reach out to people out of the blue next time you’re applying for jobs.

Make an effort to stay in regular contact with your references, keep them informed about your job search and be sure to express your appreciation for the time they put into your recommendations – regardless of the outcome. Even if you don’t get the job, keeping the lines of communication open will make it easier to ask for future references, or for a recommendation on LinkedIn.

Repaying the favour can also work well when it comes to professional references. If appropriate, offer to provide a reference in return to the people who are giving you one.

Searching for a new job? Talk to a Michael Page recruitment specialist about employment opportunities in your field.

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