You’ve reached that crucial point in the hiring process where it’s time to provide a list of references. Are you ready for that moment? Some job-seekers treat references as an afterthought, while others don’t give it any thought. The truth is, like a well-written cover letter or a crucial thank-you note to an interviewer, references need more attention than we typically give them. Let’s take a look at a step-by-step guide to getting references who will help win you the job: 

Step 1. Create the list of potential references.   

Think of as many people as possible who can speak knowledgeably and favorably about your skills. This can include: 

  • Past colleagues or supervisors 
  • Current colleagues (if your job search is public knowledge) or supervisors 
  • Co-volunteers 
  • Teachers or professors, both current and past 
  • Fellow students 
  • Former customers 
  • Business contacts   

Go through your LinkedIn, Facebook, email, and phone contacts if you need help jogging your memory. 

Step 2. Do a reference check on your potential references.  

Check them out on social media: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc. If a reference has a Facebook page filled with profanity or inappropriate pictures, you can bet that you aren’t the only person who can see this—so can those who are considering hiring you.  Some might be better references than others.   

Step 3. Contact each potential reference.  

Ask permission. Call (preferable) or email (not so preferable) each reference and ask not only if they would be willing to provide a reference, but also if they would provide a good reference. You can’t assume that just because that person managed you means they have a high opinion of you. Maybe you thought you left a job on good terms, but your former supervisor harbors resentment towards the amount of unfinished work you left behind. 

Step 4. Get your reference’s correct contact information. Your reference may only want reference checks to contact him or her by email. Clarify their contact preferences ahead of time to make sure nobody’s time gets wasted.  

Step 5. Create your master list of confirmed references. This is not the list you will give a hiring manager (see Step 7). You will want to include names, titles, contact information and preferences for contact, how you and the reference know each other, and which skills or accomplishments you have that the reference to attest to. If you volunteered together helping children learn how to swim at a camp, your reference can’t speak to your Microsoft PowerPoint abilities.  

Step 6. Break down your list of references. Some references are more suited to speak to your skills for one position over another, so prepare a short list for each company you’re interviewing with. While one reference may be well-suited for every single position you would ever apply for, don’t wear them out by using them over and over, especially if you are a job-hopper. 

Step 7. Provide your references only when requested. You want to avoid people calling the references before an offer is on hand, and you should be given the opportunity to warn your references that a call or email is coming beforehand. 

Step 8. When you provide your list to the hiring manager, contact the references. Let them know what company you have interviewed with, what position you interviewed for, when they should expect a call or email, and what skills you have or accomplishments you made that you would like them to mention. It may have been a while since you and the reference worked together; refreshing their memory can’t hurt.   

Step 9. Whether or not you get the job, thank your references! You should at least send the person a thank you note. Whether you send flowers, buy a bottle of wine, or take the reference out to dinner is up to you, but show some sort of gratitude; after all, they took time out of their day to help you!   

Step 10. Keep in touch with your references.  You never know when you will need them again in the future, so give them a call or shoot them an email once in a while and make sure you keep up with their current contact information.  

Caveat: what if you don’t have any references? Maybe you were a stay-at-home parent and can’t reach any past colleagues. Perhaps you have been laid off for some time and cannot locate any past coworkers. Here are some alternatives that may or may not satisfy a potential employer: 

  • Request a letter of reference when you leave a former employer and keep that on hand.  
  • Keep a file of “kudos.” This can include any thank-you letters, performance evaluations, etc.  
  • Volunteer. Even if it’s just for one event, put your best foot forward and ask if the organizer or a fellow volunteer would provide a reference for you in the future.  

If, after extensive thinking and research, you can’t come up with one person that you can use as a reference, see if they would allow you to prove your skills by completing a skills test or if you can be hired for a probationary period and use that time to prove yourself.