Ask Matt: How can I make my references stand out?

  • Article by: MATT KRUMRIE , Wire services
  • Updated: February 5, 2013 - 3:02 PM

Matt Krumrie, employment advice columnist

Dear Matt: I’ve had some great interviews and know some companies have contacted my references. I didn’t get those jobs and started wondering, could my references be blowing it for me? Does that happen? Do candidates lose out on job offers because of poor performances by their references?

Matt says: Yes, they most certainly do. “Sometimes references are unpleasantly surprised to get a reference request, or are somewhat at a loss to speak to a candidate’s credentials, ” says Jeff Shane, a spokesperson for Allison & Taylor (allisontaylor.com), a company that has been checking references for corporations and individuals since 1984.

When creating a reference list, select those who have carefully observed your job performance. Your references need to have seen you in action, hopefully performing well in adverse conditions. Be sure to gather all the important contact data about every potential reference, including name, title, company, address, telephone/fax number, and email address. A typical list of references should include at least five names, depending on the amount of experience a candidate has accumulated, says Shane.

“An employer’s favorite reference is generally the candidate’s immediate supervisor, because that person knew the candidate best and can attest to their strengths and weaknesses better than human resources or other parties within the company, ” said Shane.

Make it easy for an employer by offering a list of several reference candidates, such as a supervisor, a second level supervisor, CEO, a matrix manager, or key client/co-worker or an HR contact. When creating your reference list, go beyond just the basic contact info. Include examples of how you worked together with that reference so an employer will see exactly how you and your references interacted, and how it relates to the skill set your prospective employers are seeking.

After developing your list, contact each reference personally beforehand. Share your current résumé with them and let them know about the positions you’re applying for, as well as the type of qualities the company is likely seeking.

In many cases an application form will often pose the question “May we contact your former supervisor?” If you check “no”, it is a red flag and will likely be a showstopper to your employment prospects, said Shane. It’s also possible that an employer will call that supervisor anyway, even if you don’t authorize it, since that supervisor is usually the key reference in an employer’s eyes.

“The last thing you want is to lose out on a good position because you did not have your references organized, validated and prioritized,” said Shane. “Utilize a proactive, creative approach to showcasing your references to differentiate yourself from most other applicants and ensure that the next new hire will be you.”

Got a career question for Matt? Email askmatt@startribune.com

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