Think back to the last job application you submitted. Did you have to list references? Some employers, as part of the hiring process, ask for references up front, while some wait until later stages of interviewing. Almost all of them ask for references eventually. Choosing your references carefully and preparing them in advance gives you the best chance at getting a stellar recommendation.
Who should you ask to be a reference? I’ve seen novice job seekers list friends, significant others, and family members as references, not knowing that employers almost always prefer to speak with former or current managers. It can be difficult to come up with three references, particularly if you’re just starting out. Regardless of your level of experience, you need to leave mom off of the list.
The ideal choice for a reference is always a previous manager with whom you got along well. They’ll be able to speak to the things hiring managers care about: the quality of your work, what it’s like to manage you, your work ethic, and any traits or quirks that might only become apparent after you’ve been on the job for a while. When hiring, employers want to speak with several people who know your work well. The magic number seems to be three, although some will ask for more references or, less often, for fewer. It’s a good idea to keep in contact with people who can serve as references for you. LinkedIn can be a great option for keeping up with your professional network.
If you don’t have three former bosses (or your former bosses won’t give you a good recommendation–more on that in a minute), don’t give up! Think of other people who will be able to comment objectively on your work. Have you volunteered anywhere? A supervisor from a volunteer gig might make a good reference. If you’re a college student, you’ll get more mileage out of using a professor as a reference than, say, your boyfriend. A coworker’s opinion will likely carry more weight than anything a friend might say about you.
You will also want to make sure that any managers you list will give you a great reference, not a tepid or–even worse–a terrible one. This is one of many reasons that it’s important to have a good working relationship with your boss, but if for some reason you didn’t, leave them off the reference list. Prospective employers may contact them anyway, but at least you’ll know you did your best to offer references who will speak highly of you.
How should you prepare your references? First, let them know that you’ll be listing them. This gives them an opportunity to either think of what they’ll say about you or to let you know if they don’t feel comfortable acting as a reference. It is also basic courtesy, which is never a bad thing. If you’re getting ready to start applying for jobs for the first time, send each potential reference an email or give them a quick call to let them know you’d like to list them. If you’re reactivating a job search with references who’ve previously agreed to recommend you, a heads up to make those people aware is a good idea.
As you continue in your career, be thinking a step or two ahead. How you behave in one job may directly affect your ability to get another job, and you should conduct yourself accordingly. Perform to a high standard, maintain open communication with your boss, ensure you’re a team player, stay professional, give at least two weeks notice when you leave–in short, be the kind of person you would want to manage if YOU were the boss. The best way to secure excellent references for the future is to be excellent at your current job.