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How to Get the Best References When Applying for a Job

The key is to ask the right people and know what they’ll say about you

By Diane Dolinsky-Pickar

This article originally appeared on

Imagine you have been through three rounds of interviews, your human resources contact has said you are clearly more experienced than the other leading candidate and all that remains is a reference check. Your hopes are high, since you know your former colleagues will vouch for you.

My girlfriend was in such a position, but then things went awry. Her reference check turned out to be anything but perfunctory.

It delivered a few twists, including this question: “On a sliding scale of 1 to 7, how would you rate this candidate in terms of executing the details of a plan?” One of her references responded with a “4,” which is respectable but not awesome.

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That reply raised more questions than it answered and the job went to another candidate.

The takeaway: Consider carefully the people you’ll provide as references and make absolutely sure you know what they’ll say about your strengths, weaknesses and modus operandi when they’re asked.

Here are four common FAQs (and answers) about references, so this final step in the hiring process becomes an easy one, not your Achilles' heel:

Is getting someone more senior to give me a reference better than a junior person who has worked with me daily?

A savvy recruiter told me the ideal reference is from a person who managed you – a former boss who can speak to such things as your work ethic, accomplishments and on-the-job demeanor.

You can also broaden the net, especially if you don’t want a specific employer to be aware of your search or you’re unable to locate former supervisors.
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In those cases, think outside of your everyday sphere of operation. You could name as a reference, for example, someone in your field who has worked with you and can speak knowledgeably about your talents.

If I worked with someone more than three years ago, should I use that person as a reference?

A reference from that long ago won’t necessarily be stale, but you should make an extra effort to coach him or her and review your accomplishments together.

This is especially true if you two haven’t been in touch for a while.

Remind this former colleague how you deployed a diverse set of skills or whatever else you want highlighted. Put your views in writing, so your reference, who may have frayed memories of you, can easily refer to them.

One more tip: Take time out at least once a year to collect written testimonies from others who could illuminate your talents down the road. Your completion of a complex project is a particularly auspicious time to ask associates you worked with for a brief assessment of your skills and know-how.

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I’ve been working part-time and want to relaunch my career in a bigger way. Who should I use as a reference, since I’ve been outside a typical workplace?

There are quite a few variations on this question, including “I’ve been volunteering” or “I’m changing fields.”

Get creative and use someone who can speak to the specific skill sets that would be transferable to the position you seek.

For example, if presenting and persuading will be important, think of the times when you analyzed a problem, spoke about the the merits of alternatives and lobbied for a particular path. Then speak with the person who saw how you gathered input and took specific steps to build support.

Politely ask about serving as a reference. If the answer is “yes,” explain what you’d like him or her to regurgitate – oops, I mean repeat – to a hiring manager or recruiter.

I don’t have full-time work experience. Who should I give as a reference?

If you’re looking for your first job or even an entry-level position in a field where you have no background, finding a reference can be baffling.

Try asking teachers or lecturers you’ve studied under who work in relevant fields.

Or, if you’ve had part-time jobs, see if your bosses or managers there will step up. Unless you operated by stealth or made no impression at all, they should be able to tell prospective employers something about your work ethic and personality.

Tell these potential references the types of character traits you’d like them to highlight – your incredible initiative, perhaps, or the leadership talents that brought together a group of know-it-all’s to gel as a team.

This way, you’ll have references that could help you get the job of your dreams.

Diane Dolinsky-Pickar is the co-founder of Mojo40com, a blog for people over 40 that discusses career trends and offers strategic steps for career advancement. Karen Vasconi, a recruiter based in the New York City area, was a source for this piece.

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