Career Resources

Well, if you like her, that's good enough for me: Choosing referees

Well, if you like her, that's good enough for me: Choosing referees

By The Good Jobs Team, 07 Jun 2016

Resume advice Job seeking strategies

The advertisement asked for three references. Your first choices were Elon Musk, Hillary Clinton, and Elvis: however, they haven't got back to you, and you're starting to think they may not be available. Who comes next?

In making your decision, consider the sorts of questions a potential employer might want to ask your references:

  • How do you know the candidate? And how long have you known them?
  • How would you rate their skills in...?
  • Can you describe their communications abilities?
  • How well do they work under pressure?
  • Can you describe their attitude toward work?
  • How well do they take constructive criticism?
  • How well do they interact with co-workers?
  • Are they a team player?
  • How would you describe their honesty and integrity?
  • Can you describe their key strengths and weaknesses?
  • How receptive are they to new ideas and procedures?
  • Given a description of the position they're applying for, do you think they're a good match?
  • If you were in a position to hire this candidate for a similar position, would you do so?
  • Can you describe their leadership, managerial, or supervisory skills?
  • Do you have any additional information or comments that might help us make a better decision about this candidate?

Here are some of the people the selection committee is interested in hearing from.

People who know your work

The committee is going to expect that you'll include your current supervisor.

If you don't include your current supervisor, they'll probably ask you why. If your supervisor isn't all that impressed by your work there's a trade-off here, and if you haven't told them you're looking to move that could also be a problem; but if you can line them up, it's the strongest recommendation you can have. If it's impossible, for whatever reason, to get them onside then think about who's next best - someone else in the same office? Your last boss, or the one before? And make sure you have an explanation ready when you're asked why your current supervisor didn't make the list.

People who know the requirements of the new job

You'll have to word your referees up.

You don't want your referees saying that you're a nice person. If that was what the committee wanted, they'd ask your mum. You'll have to tell your referees about the new job you've applied for, and ask them to touch on relevant aspects of your performance. This may, in fact, involve writing the whole reference yourself and giving it to them to sign; and that's certainly neither illegal nor unusual.

People who think highly of you

A little exaggeration is expected.

Your supervisor will generally be prepared to go overboard in praising you if a) you're so absolutely wonderful that it can't be concealed, or b) you're such a total stuff-up that they're anxious to get you out of the office any way they can. Let's hope it's the former.

People who have credibility

You can't re-use old references.

Any reference that begins "To whom it may concern" shows that it's a pro forma you attach to every application. You haven't put much work into it, and neither has your referee, and something that didn't take much work won't carry much weight. And references that have passed through your hands are less valued than references that go directly to the committee, because you haven't had a chance to filter out the negatives.

One of the things the selection committee wants to know is how much trouble other people are willing to go to on your behalf. They want to know that your referee is prepared, at the very least, to do this favour for you as often as is necessary rather than just the once.

Other tips

Get your referees' permission.

Never ever put someone up as a referee if they don't know about it. If they're rung up by someone asking for details they will be at least a little pissed off at you, and applying for a job is very specifically a time when you don't want that to be the case. Thank them afterwards, too, as you're probably going to want to use them again.

Don't give references until they're asked for.

The later in the process you can push this, the better. Ideally, you'd only be asked for references after you've passed the last committee and you're the chosen one, subject to checking. This lessens the load for your referees and gives you more information to feed them. Take a list to the interview, though.

Include references as a separate sheet, and give full contact details of each one.

If the prospective employer has to look up contact details in the white pages they're going to be irritated. You don't want them to be irritated.