Working wise: Choosing your references

Dear Working Wise: The jobs that I’m applying for are asking for three references. Is there anything I should know before I give them a list? — Signed Careful Career Seeker

Dear Careful: Picking your work references may seem to some like the simplest part of your job search, but it’s not.

Employers usually want at least three good references and so it pays to invest some time building the best list you can.

Consider Credibility—Immediate supervisors make great references, because they are most familiar with you and your work. A higher-ranking manager may seem more impressive, but if they can’t talk about your work, they will not be as persuasive.

Get references from people who can talk about your experience, skills, accomplishments and work ethic. They should also be able to clearly express their opinions over the phone and in writing.

Build your list—Make a list of potential references, with name, position, company, phone number, email and how they prefer to be contacted. You may also want to include a few words about how they know you.

Ask Permission—Contact your choices to ask if they are okay with being listed as references. Listen for any hesitation—it may imply they won’t give you a great review.

One useful strategy is to ask them in a way that gives them an easy “out” if they are hesitant. For example, ask, “Do you think you know me and my work well enough to be comfortable giving me a reference?”

If they say yes, ask how they prefer to be contacted and confirm that they will give you a positive review.

You may have trouble developing a list of references if you are new the job market, new to the country, your references have retired or relocated or if you don’t want your current employer to know you’re looking for a new job.

Try asking customers, clients, supervisors in other departments, teachers, people from your volunteer organizations—anyone who is familiar with your skills and how you work. Ask your retired references if they are willing to be contacted at home?

You can also provide copies of your past performance evaluations, letters of recognition, awards, customer comments, and other documents that demonstrate your value.

For more tips on overcoming a lack of references, read the Unavailable or problem references article on the alis website at

Ensure they give a good review—Give your references a few days’ notice about being contacted. This will give them time to prepare what they want to say.

Provide your references with an updated resumé or profile as a reminder of your background and what you achieved at their company.

Offer them a description of the position you’re competing for. Include a brief list of the necessary skills, so they can speak to those.

Tips for maintaining your references:

– Ask for a letter of recommendation every time you leave a position

– Keep in touch and stay on good terms with past employers/references

– Build a portfolio of awards, thank yous, testimonials, performance reviews

Good luck!

Charles Strachey is a manager with Alberta Community and Social Services.

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