Your cover letter and résumé have attracted the interest of multiple employers. To glean more information about you, hiring managers for each company will likely call the people on your reference list.
Some companies may consider contacting references as a necessary part of the interview process, but talking with a past employer may not change a decision to hire a candidate. Others may put a great deal of stock in the words of the references they reach out to.
References can be subjective, says Tammi Pirri, vice president of human resources for Black Duck Software, a Massachusetts-based computer software and consulting company. "There's a lot of companies that rely on outside firms who call to just verify dates and information," she says. "On the flip side, there are companies that will want to delve deeply."
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While employers may have different standards in judging the value of what references say, it's always a safe bet to rely on people who will speak about you in glowing terms. Here are some tips for compiling your list.
Use one page. If you've been a successful employee at every place you've worked, you may want to cite a litany of former colleagues. But you don't want to overwhelm employers with pages of names. Deborah Brown-Volkman, founder and president of career coaching company Surpass Your Dreams, advises using three or four references that fit on one page. Like your résumé and cover letter, she recommends tailoring the list with names relevant to the job you're applying for.
Supervisors carry more weight. After covering numerous shifts or instructing co-workers on special projects, it's tempting to fill your list with colleagues who will enthusiastically vouch for your value. But the testimony of a current or former boss makes for a more worthy evaluation of your skills, and most companies will ask for a supervisor as a reference anyway. "They feel it is the best way to get an accurate overview of the work you performed. Did you make your boss's life easier? Or did you make it harder?" Brown-Volkman says. Co-workers can be good references, she adds, but "they may not always have the same credibility."
Family and friends could be viable options. Having your mom or best friend laud your talents may seem like a desperate attempt to convince an employer that you would be a premier hire. But if there's a "professional connection," Brown-Volkman says, then it's perfectly legitimate. For example, maybe your best friend-turned-boss hired you for your current position or your only job was in the family business. "If you worked at a family business, then you have to put a family member," she says.
Don't discount professors or summer job supervisors. If you just graduated from high school or college, you may have a short or nonexistent work history – leaving you with a thin bench of possible candidates to choose from. Professors "who can vouch for you as your work as a student," Brown-Volkman says, are suitable substitutes. And don't exclude a manager from a blue-collar summer job just because you're applying for a white-collar position.
Choose those who will shower you with praise. Ideally, you want your references to say "great things about you," Brown-Volkman says. They should detail your appeal as a hardworking go-getter who has the hard and soft skills necessary to excel at the job being offered.
Include a recent boss. A turbulent relationship with a recent boss caused you to quit or be fired. With the ability to rattle off one unflattering story after the next, you intend to keep his or her name as far away from your list as possible. But employers may become suspicious if you nix the name of someone you labored under for multiple years, particularly if the skills from that job are highly relevant to the one you're applying for. Companies can be understanding of such dilemmas, but you have to be "honest and upfront" about your work relationships, Pirri says. "You can't get along with everyone you work with, and sometimes moving on is the right thing." Explain that the individual won't have positive things to say, and state that you wish to offer someone else who will.