Who should I ask for a reference?

It was a great interview. As you start to leave the office, your potential employer asks you for the names of two references. Who do you ask? What is an employer looking for from a reference?

This is not a passive process, let to the whims of friends adding comments to your skills on social networking sites.

If you are applying for a job or completing a graduate school application, at some point you will have to ask someone to provide a recommendation. Whether you are starting out or advancing in your career, selecting the perfect reference should confirm an employer’s intent to offer you a position.

As a student, your list of references should include a faculty member, preferably in your major and an employer reference from an internship or part time job. Most graduate programs will require two faculty references and perhaps a non-academic reference.

Develop a list of 5-6 people who are potential references. Qualify each of these professionals in respect to your relationship. Is this someone who knows you well because of your participation in classes and who can comment on the academic quality of your work? Can they adequately predict your ability to succeed? As a former internship employer, will your reference be able to cite specific projects along with an assessment of your performance?

Arrange an appointment to meet face to face with each of the people on your list. Be prepared. Bring a copy of your resume and the job description or graduate program brochure. (Do not text a recommendation request with a link to a website.) Create a short list of why you are pursuing this job or graduate program and talk to your potential reference about what you would like them to emphasize. Does the employer require good communication skills? Ask if the faculty member could cite your final paper and presentation as an example of your skill match. Is the graduate school looking for people with a commitment to their community? Suggest the reference  mention the time you spent tutoring in the local elementary school.

As a seasoned professional, changing jobs or changing careers you need support from colleagues and managers who can speak to your skill set and adaptability.

Develop a list of people who can comment on your abilities related to each element in the job description. An employer is trying to determine if you will ‘fit’ in an organization. Do you have the skills that complement other team members? Will your approach to problem solving facilitate collaboration? This is where your sense of an organization’s culture helps you narrow your potential field of references.

It’s good practice to nourish your list of references over time. As you advance in your career, your roster of possible references will expand relative to your experience. Choose one or two key folks from your list who are credible in the eyes of your potential employer. At the point an employer is having conversations with a reference, they are trying to differentiate you from other qualified finalists for the position. Your reference is a key part of that decision.

Selecting a reference takes time. You may have someone say no. Or, you may have someone agree and not follow up. Always have a back up. People forget. Provide deadlines and enough lead-time to avoid last minute panic. This is not a time to be shy. This is part of your marketing strategy. Your references should feel confident with both the information you have provided and their direct experience with you to provide a recommendation without reservation.

A great resource for anyone seeking work today is the Corner Office column in The New York Times. Adam Bryant summarizes his conversations with CEOs from all sectors, exploring their values and how they hire.

Jana Eggers, CEO of Spreadshirt, a maker of personalized clothing, described how she solicits feedback from references, not only the ones on the list:

I’m also going to see how they treat the receptionist. I always get feedback from them. I’ll want to know if someone comes in and if they weren’t polite, if they didn’t say, ”Hello,” or ask them how they were. It’s really important to me.

I also check references myself. One question I ask on references is, ”Where should I spend time coaching this person?”

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