How to make sure you have the perfect references

Personal recommendations are one of the most powerful influences on employers’ hiring decisions. One survey found that after the interview and your CV, references have the biggest impact on whether you get the job.

But many of us treat references as an afterthought, perhaps assuming that they rarely get checked. In some cases, your past employers play it safe by only providing factual references with the dates you worked for them.

Even where that’s the case, you can still seek personal recommendations from people in your field or gather LinkedIn endorsements. Or you might negotiate an agreed reference. Either way, here’s what employers want to see.

Promote the right qualities

A reference has to be truthful, but you also want it to be effective. The best referees can speak to the qualities that employers most want. And thanks to a survey of 12,800 references by SkillSurvey, we now know some of the most popular attributes in successful references.

Referees who can attest to your commitment are vital: that was mentioned in more than one in five references. Next most important were reliability and teamwork. Surprisingly, many also mentioned areas for improvement: work on confidence, communication and experience to keep referees happy.

Prep your referees 

When you’ve identified referees who can speak to your best qualities, get in touch, explaining the role you’re applying for. Don’t feel that you have to share an extensive job description. “People are busy and don’t want this level of detail,” says career coach Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio.

Instead, she suggests highlighting a specific accomplishment or project they may want to focus on. It makes the role easier for them and ensures that you’re both on the same page.

Format your reference list

If you’ve done your homework, you should have a range of referees who can highlight key aspects of your career and your qualities as an employee. So when you hand over a list of references, include details about which of your attributes they are ready to discuss.

“When you offer a reference list at the conclusion of an interview in a highly professional format, it can create a proactive and favourable impression,” says Jeff Shane, president of Allison & Taylor, a reference-checking firm. And it means they’ll spend more time talking about your best qualities.

Follow up

Whether you’re successful or not, let your referee know with a note of thanks. It’s only polite and you might be calling on their patience and good opinion again soon.

“You just want people to know that their time and their input was worth something to you,” says J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of online career support company Work It Daily. Maintaining good relations is important whenever you make the next step in your career.