"References are similar to mentors. They are a must-have." Career coach Jenn DeWall doesn't mince words when it comes to the importance of choosing and securing the right references who can vouch for your professional and personal value as an employee. When you are applying to a job, it's easy to think that the interviews and the resume are the most important parts of the process and that references are just HR's way of making sure you're not a crazy liar. However, that's far from the truth.
Recruiters and those in HR use references as a way to fill in the gaps about a candidate, to learn more about a candidate's work style, their track record of success, and the things that they are passionate about beyond the job description. As a job seeker and candidate, it is essential to have a list of people who can provide glowing references about who you are as a person and a hard worker.
"Think about it as trying to create your power team of people that advocate for you," says DeWall, "that is the goal of initiating and maintaining these relationships. The more people you have to speak in your favor, the better your chances are of receiving strong recommendations but also future career opportunities. If you don't have them, it's time to get them!"
Here's how to secure recommendations and references that will be the difference between a recruiter saying "Thanks, but, no thanks" and "We'd love to offer you a job!"
Step 1: Find your power team.
"Try to initiate and maintain at least 3-4 individual relationships that you could use as references," says DeWall. These are people or mentors who you regularly go to for professional advice and who can attest to your work ethic and how you problem solve.
Step 2: Ask the right person to write you a reference.
While you may have a power team, you may not need to tap each person for a reference. Like finding the perfect role, think about the person on your team who would be a perfect fit to write a recommendation or reference for you. Three things DeWall advises considering when choosing this person are:
1. How strong are the writer's skills? Are they able to show how great you are on paper?
2. How much experience do you have working with that person? The more experience the more examples they can utilize throughout the letter. It will seem more personalized and not as generic.
3. What does their schedule look like and do they have enough time to complete it? Make sure that they have the time to do the letter in a timely fashion. If they have a busy schedule and can't write the letter don't take it personal, find someone else!
When asking for a reference, DeWall reminds us, "Be professional and have an expectation of what you would want from the reference and include that when asking them to be a reference."
Step 3: Help them help you.
Often times the people we ask for references are busy folks. Executives and managers can get asked for references all the time and be bogged down with other work. To ensure a stellar reference, help them out a bit. "It can be helpful for you to paint the picture of what the company is looking for so the reference can show you in the best light possible." Remind them of projects you worked on together, or instances where you collaborated. The goal is to help provide anecdotes that your power team can use when talking to a recruiter or writing you a letter of recommendation. "There are typically stronger examples when you work directly with someone in a job but you could also develop similar experiences with someone that you have done group projects with in school."
Step 4: Use social media wisely.
Recruiters regularly look at LinkedIn and social media to see what professional contacts say about you as a candidate. Use your website or professional social channels as additional tools in your "get hired" arsenal. "Testimonials and reviews have taken the place of what letters of recommendation did," says DeWall. "If you're not doing it now start asking for reviews and testimonials of your work on LinkedIn. It's one of the first places employers will look to determine if you're a good fit so you want to have all the positive reviews you can get."
Step 5: Say thank you and be consistent.
It's easy to get caught up in the craziness of job applications, but remaining in touch with your power team and saying thank you to nurture the ongoing relationship are key to your professional growth. Be mindful of the give and take in the relationship, as well. "The biggest mistake people make is choosing references that they have inconsistent relationships with them or choose people who don't respect them. These are the references that will flop because they will not advocate for you," says DeWall. "Make sure it's a reference that you have open lines of communication with, meaning they will help you develop and not hold your mistakes against you, also make sure it's someone that respects you and genuinely likes you. If you have a reference that knows, likes and trusts you and is armed with the right information or way to describe your experience, you will receive a stellar reference!"