References are an extremely important aspect of securing a job in today’s competitive market. When hiring managers speak to an enthusiastic reference, the candidate can come off looking like an exceptional option. On the other hand, speaking with references can also go horribly wrong, especially if the reference has no warning. If a hiring manager contacts a reference who does not expect the call, it reflects very poorly on the candidate.
The hiring process can move much more quickly than you expect, so you should make a list of potential references and narrow it down before you even begin applying for jobs. Choose people who know you well and who have a lot of background on your qualifications and accomplishments. Ideally, your references can also speak to your qualifications for the position in question, so supervisors from past, related jobs are a great option.
When you ask a person to serve as a reference, do so in person or over the phone. Only use e-mail as a last resort since it is very impersonal. If you have not spoken to the reference in a while, offer him or her a brief background of your work together and speak briefly about your current career trajectory. Phrase the question in a way that allows the reference to refuse gracefully and accept any hesitation as a polite “no.” Never pressure someone into serving as a reference because a lukewarm recommendation can quickly eliminate you as a viable candidate.
Most references will appreciate if you send them an overview of the jobs you are applying for and the skills and accomplishments you’d like to emphasize. You may also want to include a resume with this e-mail so the reference has a more complete picture of your history. Let the person know each time you list them as a contact for a new position so that they are prepared. Make the reference feel appreciated with a handwritten thank-you note after they agree to help you and then follow up once you land a new job with another thank-you note sharing the news.