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Answers To 8 Common Questions On Choosing References for a Job

Whether you’re looking for permanent full time work or a temporary contract, securing and providing references can sometimes seem like the most challenging part of getting the job. Here are answers to 8 of the most common questions about references for potential employers.

1. How many references do I need?

The magic number is usually three, though it’s a good idea to have a couple of extras “on standby” in case you’re asked for more. Some companies may settle for two references if they’re strong—for example, a current manager or supervisor who thinks very highly of you, or a previous direct report in a very senior position.

2. Can I provide personal references?

It depends on your definition of “personal”. If that means a lifelong friend who’s been your bestie forever, well, no. But if it’s a former teacher, a religious leader, a family doctor or lawyer—yes. Ideally you’re looking for someone who can fill in the “personal” gaps that a professional reference might not. In other words, someone who can speak to your character—your honesty; your integrity; your interactions outside the workplace. And you want this person to be in a position of authority because you want their credibility to reinforce yours.

If you’re providing three references, keep in mind that only one should be personal. The other two should be professional. After all, the interviewer will be most interested in your work experience and how you performed in similar roles.

3. What’s an example of a professional reference?

Although a direct report is always the preferred reference, if you had issues with a previous manager or supervisor, a great second option could be a college professor, department coworker, a client, or even a leader at a volunteer organization you worked with.

4. What about providing an internal reference—e.g.: a referral—from the company I’m applying to?

Great idea! If you know someone at the company who can recommend you and vouch for your capability and character, that’s a real advantage. Not only do they know the company (they may even know the person/people interviewing you), but they can probably offer insider tips on what the company is looking for, their culture, policies, and so on.

5. How far back can my references go?

Five years is a safe general rule, though you might go back farther if you worked with the person for a long period of time and/or they played an important role in your career. For example, if you have a manager who you reported to for 10 years, but you haven’t worked with them for almost as long, you may still want to include them. Use common sense: Consider whether you still have any kind of relationship with this person;  whether they still know you well enough to speak to your skills and ability; and whether their input will positively influence your interviewer’s decision.

Ideally, if you’re lucky, your current manager or supervisor is supporting your career advancement and is willing to be a reference for you. While a current reference carries a lot of impact, it’s not a possibility for most people.

6. Do I need to get permission from my references every time I have an interview?

That answer probably depends on how frequent your job interviews are, and what kind of requirements the job entails. If you have a number of job interviews, one after the other, your references may not want you contacting them each time. However, if a job calls for particular skills or experience that a reference can speak to, you should probably let them know. Again, use common sense. And fortunately, a quick heads-up email or text is an easy, fast way to contact someone with minimal interruption.

7. Should I wait to be asked for references or just provide them?

Coming to the interview with your references prepared and ready to go is often a great way to help you stand out from the crowd. If, at the end of the interview, you feel it’s gone well, offer the references to the interviewer (“I have my references here, by the way, if it would help you to have them handy.”) Chances are the interviewer will accept them, and by making their job easier, you’ve already made yourself a stronger candidate.

8. Should I ask a reference to provide a letter of recommendation?

Some companies may ask for a letter of recommendation; many will prefer to call your references.

Want to ask someone to be a reference?
Download our handy template and make the process easier.

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