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Work references are a critical check point to getting a job offer. 

Employers who are serious about hiring you want to learn what previous employers, peers, or employees think of you and your skills. That's where your references come in.

Most employers will ask for three professional references and some may also request three personal references. Personal references are friends or non-professional acquaintances who can speak to your character as a person. Aim to have four to six professional references ready to provide to the employer, so you can rotate them and avoid overusing any one person. 

Who should you select as a reference? Choose people who can speak to working with you in a professional setting, who respect you and with whom you have had a successful working relationship. Typically, you would select 1-2 people you've reported to, 1-2 colleagues, and if you’ve held a management position, you might select 1-2 people who worked for you.

It is very important that the people who are serving as your references are prepared to discuss your skills and abilities in a professional setting.

Get permission to use someone as a reference

Always ask your potential references ahead of time if they would be willing to serve as a reference. This also allows you to discuss your job goals, how your experiences qualify you for the position, as well as get their preferred contact information. Know what your references might say about you by asking them questions they may be asked by your prospective employer.

In addition, send a copy of your resume to your references so they are aware of what information the potential employer has and will be able to intelligently discuss various aspects of your professional experience.

Possible reference check questions:

  • What was the nature and length of your relationship with the candidate?
  • In what capacity did you work with the candidate (peer, colleague, supervisor)?
  • Could you give me a brief description of the duties the candidate performed?
  • What were the candidate’s strengths?
  • What were the candidate’s weaknesses or areas where the candidate could improve?
  • Would you recommend him/her for this position? Why? Why not?
  • How well did the candidate know the work?
  • How well did the candidate perform the job?
  • How well did the candidate manage the workload?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s relationships with co-workers, employees, and management?
  • Is there anything else you can tell me about the candidate’s ability to perform his/her job?
  • Is the candidate eligible for re-hire in your organization?
  • How would you describe the candidate’s institutional and personnel leadership skills?
  • Why did he/she leave the position?
  • If you were going to provide advice on how to best guide this person, what would it be?

Reference contact information

Ensure that you have an updated cell phone number and a professional email address the employer may use to contact them. Ask your references what time of day they prefer to be contacted and at which number. When preparing a document listing your references, use the same font and formatting you used for your resume and cover letter. Even if these items are submitted separately, they will come together as a cohesive package.

Even though you are prepared with your references when you walk into the interview, wait until asked before providing them. Handing references to an interviewer too early in the process can inadvertently communicate an overbearing level of confidence, or lack thereof, and either of these misconceptions you want to avoid.