Here are 10 things to consider so you won't be caught like a deer in headlights when you need a professional recommendation to land a new job:
1. Keep your eyes open. Stay on the lookout for good references, even when you're not in the midst of a job hunt. Maintain an ongoing list of people who are able to speak about your professional qualities.
2. Don't wait to ask for LinkedIn recommendations, even when you're not in an active job search. This is especially important if you work with clients for short stints or if you have a great boss who is moving on to a new job. The best time to nail down a solid reference is when your work is fresh in the person's mind. Use LinkedIn to collect written recommendations that can stand the test of time. Employers will likely want to speak to the reference, but if you have a positive, targeted reference on LinkedIn, it's a great starting point to help the person to remember your terrific professional qualities.
3. Avoid reciprocal recommendations. LinkedIn endorsements are more useful if they're not all the result of "you recommend me and I'll do the same for you" deals. A reader may not give the recommendation as much weight if you post an endorsement for each person who highlights your strengths.
4. Select your top prospects. Your next employer will prefer references from your current or previous employers, particularly your direct supervisors. Alternatively, you may also want to include clients or customers you worked for in your current or previous job. If you're a recent graduate or if you've just finished a class, consider asking the professor or instructor to vouch for you. And it's not unheard of to have someone you supervised act as a reference, though it's not a first-choice option. If you have had a leadership role in a volunteer organization, "supervisors" from that organization may also be good references.
5. Request permission. Never give an employer the name of a reference without first asking the person's permission. If possible, ask in person or over the phone so that you can better gauge the contact's response to your inquiry. If prospects seem hesitant, allow them to bow out gracefully. You don't want to have people recommending you who don't feel strongly about your qualifications.
6. Never send a mass email to your preferred contacts. If you can't reach your references on the phone and do resort to email, then never email more than one person at a time to ask for a reference. Everyone wants to be considered special and important. Contact each person individually, and make a point to explain exactly why you value their recommendation.
7. Remind your contact about your work together. Provide an updated version of your resume, emphasizing skills and accomplishments the person can highlight when an employer calls. Be sure she knows when you worked together so there is no confusion about dates or details.
8. Prepare your references to highlight your best skills for the job. It's especially important if you're applying for a particular job to provide as much information as possible to help the person understand what makes you the best fit. Include a job description, your cover letter for the position, and specific information you may have learned at the interview. For example, if it's clear your teamwork skills are important for the job, and you know your recommender can speak highly of your abilities as a team player, point that out and ask if he would be willing to mention those skills.
9. Vet your references. If you've often reached the final interview stages without landing the job, you should probably touch base with the references who hold the keys to your next position. Is it possible someone on your list isn't as enthusiastic as you would expect? Or maybe you haven't prepared them well enough to vouch for you? It's difficult to know for sure what people say about you when a prospective employer calls, but if you're suspicious, try mixing up your list.
10. Realize potential employers may contact people not on your list. As much as preparation is important, remember, it is very easy for hiring managers to identify people who may have worked with you, even if they're not on your list. Hopefully, you can encourage potential employers to speak to your top listed references, but be aware, many will rely on their own networks to check out your qualifications.
Miriam Salpeter is a job search and social media consultant, career coach, author, speaker, resume writer, and owner of Keppie Careers. She is author of Social Networking for Career Success. Miriam teaches job seekers and entrepreneurs how to incorporate social media tools along with traditional strategies to empower their success.