Monday, January 30, 2012

Reference Rules of the Road, Rigorous, Reliable, Respectable and Repeatable

So you finally passed muster in the 15 interviews you endured at ABC Company over two weeks.  You are exhausted. You lost about eight pounds, sweated bullets and are in the final throes of that seemingly elusive job offer.  Now comes the hard part.  Who and what references can you provide that will help seal the deal and pave the way towards the job offer that has had you in the waiting room for what appears to be a lifetime.  References are critical to bringing to a close your search for your next gig.
So as you compile your list, pay heed to the quality of your references.  Be rigorous in your selection.   Pick colleagues who are reliable, rational and repeatable and by all means respectable.  Here are some rules of the road on reference givers that can help you avoid the potholes that invariably and mysteriously appear on the highway to career contentment. 

1.      Former superiors or bosses.  This is generally a good idea particularly if you have had a good, productive relationship.  It is not advisable if your boss has ever appeared on Fortune magazine’s 10 Toughest Bosses lists or could be categorized as a screamer.  Generally a tough boss may crucify you or simply allow the reference checker to read between the lines.  And this is not always good.  So insure that you select prior superiors with whom you have had a solid relationship.  You would do well to inform them ahead of time and provide guidance on the areas of your job and performance most related to the new position you are hopeful to obtain.

2.      Co-Workers.  People with whom you have worked day to day can make excellent references for potential new employers.  Stick with true colleagues who know and appreciate your experience, value and work ethic.  Avoid folks with whom you have only had a casual work relationship.  You will want to stick with people who have shared tough times as well as victories.  Also choose a diverse base of former colleagues from differing job categories so that you portray your ability to easily navigate across the full spectrum of an enterprise. Inform the references ahead of time of potential reference checks and outline those areas on which you may want them to focus.   Encourage them to tell stories of an accomplishment or two.

3.      Friends.  This can be tricky.  Friends will always support you and likely convey all the good aspects about you.  But reference checkers generally stay away from friends for obvious reasons.  If you feel compelled, select friends who have known you for a long time.  Friends that may have been exposed to your work habits, academic credentials or volunteer work.  You want friends to be able to address your value and lifetime achievements.  As with other references, let them know in advance that the may be receiving a call and coach them on the job that you are being referenced about.

4.      Family. This is a category of people you would do well to avoid.  Yes, sure, your Mom knows everything about you and she is your biggest fan.  But a potential employer is not going to call your Mom or even your Dad, sister or brother.  Where is the objectivity?  The only circumstance where you may need to use a family member is if you were employed in the family business.  Make this clear to the reference checker or company HR folks.  And of course warn your family of the eventuality and make sure they know about the position you are seeking in advance.

5.      Others not elsewhere classified.  If you are not able to identify a sufficient population of references from the groups above, consider people with whom you have interacted in your life such as a preacher or priest, mentor, college professor, Scout Leader (Girl, Boy or Cub,) guidance counselor, teacher, coach or other professionals who know and respect you.  Avoid your mailperson, milkperson, grocery delivery person, or purloiner of your favorite substance.  These folks generally will not hold sway over your credentials or credibility.  As always, let any of your references know ahead of time of the possibility of an email or phone call about your character and employability. 



  1. Thanks for the good advise. I just sent in references recently for a job. What training is offered on creating a proper reference list? I want to be careful not to use improper references. Could you go more in depth?

    1. Bjorn:

      To be honest, the best metric for determining your references is people who have direct experience with your work and your accomplishments. So this would likely be co-workers and former bosses who know you and respect your work and achievements.

      Best regards,


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