How To Get Great Job References (Step-By-Step Guide)

It’s vital, if you are looking for work, that your personal portfolio stands you in good stead and represents you in the best light possible.

One element of your personal portfolio that is often overlooked and undervalued are your references.

You see, despite references depending very much on a third party there is a lot you can do yourself to make sure the best possible references are reaching potential new employers. 

If you’re on the lookout for greener pastures your references could very well be the thing that tips the scales in your favour and secures that interview.

To get great job references you will need to consider:

  • who you should ask to provide a reference
  • when you should ask your referee for a reference
  • how many job references you should accumulate
  • how to approach and follow up with desired your referees

and that is what we are going to concentrate on today. 

What is a job reference?

Real quickly, references are typically provided by a person who is familiar with you and your abilities and is able to corroborate claims made in your job or college application. 

This measure of social proof is a standard step in most job applications and makes sure your details of past employment and academic skills are in fact truthful and accurate. Moreover hearing from another person helps hiring companies gain a measure of your character traits which are a little harder to communicate on paper. 

Format wise, the job reference can be provided in the form of solely contact information to reach your ‘referee’ or a written letter of recommendation. 

Financial adviser analyzing business papers

Who should you ask to be a reference?

The aim is to line up a person with authority who can provide a balanced and unbiased opinion of your abilities. Typically your colleagues, tutors or group leaders will be your first port of call. 

‘Authority’ simply recognizes that some avenue job references can present you in a stronger light than others. 

The opinion of your line manager in your last job for example will hold far more value to a new employer than a college buddy who you shared weekend shifts with whilst flipping burgers.

Think carefully about who you could ask. You have a chance here to show your prospective employer just how adaptable you are capable of being by requesting references that each highlight a different strength or skill. 

When considering who to ask keep in mind that should you wish to keep your job searching private you may have to search a little further afield than your existing co-workers.  

When is the best time to ask for a job reference?

It may sound counterintuitive but the best time to ask for a reference is when you are at your most settled in a role. When your co-workers know you well and you are fully engaged in day to day operations. This takes the awkwardness out of seeking a reference when it’s clearly obvious you are looking to work elsewhere.

Take the pressure off yourself by planning ahead. Applying for a new job becomes far less daunting when you have your job application toolkit (up to date resume, cover letter, references etc) is all ready to go.

Try not to delay, it’s impossible to know when circumstances beyond your control may intervene and you lose access to your ideal referee. 

How many job references should you have?

This depends on the position being applied for however you’ll want to collect enough references that all your skillset to be fully on display. Think of all of the valuable hard and soft skills you formed across your career and try to match each one to a referee. 

It’s important to secure as many written letters of recommendation as possible to allow you to be relevant to as many new roles. Having a minimum of 4 references would be wise, with each offering a slightly different angle on your character and capabilities.

Remember, you don’t need to pass all of the references across, often only 2 are sought during the application process.

If you are looking to establish a career in a new field, for example if you are a recent graduate, it may feel like you are fighting an uphill battle without access to referees that are industry or role specific. 

In this case focus fully on your academic and soft (personal) skills and presuming you’re applying for an entry level or junior position this shouldn’t count against you one little bit.

If it does then you can look upon it from the angle that you wouldn’t want to be working for an employer who isn’t confident they can support inexperienced staff in the first place. 

How to make a job reference request

There is a certain amount of unwritten etiquette that should be followed when seeking a reference. The following action steps can be used to organise great job references today.

  1. Approach to ask for permission first. Never presume the referee is happy to support your application without first seeking permission to use their details.
  2. Make it perfectly clear what you are asking for from your referee. Do you require referee contact details only, a written letter of recommendation, or both. Will you be using the reference for one application or many? 
  3. Provide an out by using e-mail. Cornering someone in the corridor at work may make them feel pressured into saying ‘yes’ to becoming a referee when actually they don’t feel comfortable supporting you at this time.
  4. Make it as easy as possible for your referee. They have their own set of problems to contend with so carving out time to confirm your employment dates and key project details is an unwelcome burden. We would recommend going as far as to provide your own written reference in an editable form so that the referee can then change or amend details as seen fit.
  5. Give yourself plenty of time. If your referee is busy it would be unreasonable to expect them to drop everything to serve your needs. This is why planning ahead and asking for job references now as opposed to later is a good idea. This will also allow you to respond quickly should an excellent position become available at short notice.
  6. Follow up with a thanks. Whether you get past the application stage or not, be sure to acknowledge the favour that the referee has done for you with a quick thank you note.

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