Underestimating the Power of a Reference

Christine Johnson on

How often do you think about what the people you list as a reference say about you?  I am guessing not often.  For many of us, we think about our references only when we are looking for a new job.  And even then, we quickly mentally scan our friends and colleagues list in our heads to see who can say the nicest things about us.

I believe that we put so little time into thinking about who we use as references that we underestimate the power of a reference.  References can be the differentiator between two job candidates.  The reason a landlord decides to lease or not lease an apartment.  The determining factor for volunteer roles or board opportunities.

Since references often play a bigger role than an obligatory, check-the-item-off -the-list function, should we not put more effort into who we choose as our references?  Ask what the reference may say when faced with challenging questions?  Follow up on how the check went?  Ask the person doing the reference check what is involved?

Personal Experience

A few years back a colleague of mine asked if he could list me for a new position for which he was being considered.  It was a job he really wanted.  I had known him for over 5 years both personally and professionally so I felt confident I would be able to share a great deal of insight on him.  When I received the call for a reference check, I confidently spoke for the first 10 minutes of the call.  The last 20 minutes of the call were tougher – I felt like I was being interviewed for the position.  I was asked to take what I knew of my colleague and apply it to contextual situations in their workplace.

As someone who had conducted many interviews and made reference calls, I felt like I got the grilling.  This particular reference check was the most thorough, well planned, and structured reference check that I had completed.  This reference check had an ultimate goal of seeing how my colleague’s story and mine gelled in relation to leading teams, handling multiple priorities, and working under time constraints.

5 Tips for Finding and Prepping Your Best References

Scrutinize your list

Your best reference may not be your closest friend or co-worker.  It might be someone down your list of colleagues and friends who has seen your good, bad, and ugly, watched you aspire to greatness, or learn from mistakes.

Ask if the person will be a reference

If you have ever received a call for reference verification that you were not expecting, you know how awkward it can be when asked “Why do you think this person will be a good fit for this position?”  A reference who feels blindsided is a reference who cannot share your best attributes and stories to help you get the job or role.

If they say, “I am in.” – Ask for relevant and current contact information

I have tried to contact references with disconnected phone numbers or old email addresses.  As a recruiter, this wastes time and makes me wonder if the job candidate truly knows the reference or if the person is merely an occasional acquaintance.

Prepare your reference in advance and ask for feedback


Before you can do this, you need to ask the reference checker what will be required of the reference.   Not only will this help you prepare your possible reference (ie: series of questions, off the cuff, in writing, etc.), but it demonstrates your further in interest in the organization.

References are great as long as a positive outcome occurs.  Without telling the reference about the jobs or roles you are seeking, your reference cannot share information that aligns with the role.  If you want the role, give your reference as much insight as you know.  Also, ask the reference reach out to you with a quick summary of the discussion.

Discuss possible taboo topics

Do you and your reference have an inside joke?  Do you and your reference like to gossip? Go out socially for fun?  While none of these things are bad, sharing them with a potential organization may not paint you as the candidate in the best light.

“I remember when s/he acted like a leader because s/he called us an Uber when we were both too drunk to drive home.”  Don’t shake your head – I have heard it before.

Who are the one or two people you know who can best share your strengths through stories and interactions?  If you have not identified these people, I suggest you spend some time finding them before you need them for a reference.

Have anything to add?  Share your thoughts with us.

Image Credit: Storyblocks.com

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