How to Get and Give Great References
Decide who you want as your references. It can be a supervisor, a peer, a colleague, a co-worker, someone who worked for you, or a vendor or client. Then ask each of them if they will serve as a reference for you. Once your résumé is finished, send it to each of your references. Their job is to verify your résumé. How can they do that if they have not read it?

Whether you are asked to be a reference, or want someone to be a reference for you, this article can be used as a guide. Send it with your résumé for your potential reference to peruse.

Great references can be the difference in getting the job offer!

Since many companies are restricting reference checks to verification of title and dates of employment, a reference from a supervisor — and/or coworkers — carries weight.

Someone talking with your references will want to know two things:

  • What are you like?
  • Are you good at what you do?

Formula for a Reference
Align your reference with the individual’s résumé. If the reference is requested in writing, reinforce the qualities they want to emphasize from their résumé. Some things to consider include:

  • What are they good at?
  • What did they do better than anyone else?
  • What impact did they have on me? (How did they make my life better/easier?)
  • What made them stand out?
  • Is there a specific result they delivered in this position?
  • What surprised you about the individual?

The top 10 skills employers are looking for in employees are:

  • Communication Skills (verbal and written)
  • Integrity and Honesty
  • Teamwork Skills (works well with others)
  • Interpersonal Skills (relates well to others)
  • Motivation/Initiative
  • Strong Work Ethic
  • Analytical Skills
  • Flexibility and Adaptability
  • Computer Skills
  • Organizational Skills

These are the types of attributes you can focus on in your references if you are giving one, or the types of attributes you can ask for.

Here is a simple formula when you’re asking for or have been asked for a reference:

  1. Start with how you know the person (1 sentence). Give context for the relationship beyond just the job title and organization/company/school, although that can be a good way to start your Reference. (“I’ve known Amy for 10 years, ever since I joined XYZ Company. She was my lead project manager when I was an analyst.”)
    • (Name) and I have worked together…
    • I’ve known (name) for (how long)…
  1. Be specific about why you are recommending the individual (1 sentence). What qualities make him or her most valuable? Emphasize what the person did that set him or her apart. What is his work style? Does she have a defining characteristic? To be effective, References should focus on specific qualifications. You can set up the description of his or her qualities by providing an overview sentence. Here are some examples:
    • Able to delegate…
    • Able to implement…
    • Able to plan…
    • Able to train…
    • Consistent record of …
    • Customer-centered leader…
    • Effective in _________
    • Experienced professional in the _____ industry
    • Held key role in ________________
    • Highly organized and effective…
    • High-tech achiever recognized for…
    • Proficient in managing multiple priorities and projects…
    • Recognized and appreciated by…
    • Served as a liaison between _________
    • Strong project manager with…
    • Subject-matter expert in _____
    • Team player with…
    • Technically proficient in _________
    • Thrived in an…
    • Valued by clients and colleagues for…
    • Well-versed in the…

For example:

Mike had a consistent record of delivering year-over-year sales revenue increases while also ensuring top-notch customer service, working effectively with the entire 7-member sales team to make sure the client’s needs were met.
Jill is a subject-matter expert in logistics, warehouse planning, and team leadership. Her ability to take the initiative to ensure the thousands of items in each shipment were prioritized for same-day processing made her an indispensable member of the management team.

  1. Tell a story (3-5 sentences). Back up your Reference with a specific example. You should demonstrate that you know the person well, so tell a story that only you could tell. Provide “social proof” in the story — give scope and scale for the accomplishments. Don’t just say the individual you’re recommending led the team. Instead, say he led a 5-person team, or a 22-person team. Supporting evidence such as numbers, percentages, and dollar figures give detail and credibility to your story. You can choose a “Challenge-Action-Result” format to describe the project:
    • Challenge: What was the context for the work situation on the project? What was the problem that the project was designed to tackle?
    • Action: What did the person you’re recommending do? What was their specific contribution?
    • Result: What was the outcome of the project – and can you quantify it?
  2. End with a “call to action” (1 sentence). Finish with the statement “I recommend (name)” and the reason why you would recommend him or her.

Choose descriptive adjectives to include in your References. Instead of describing someone as “innovative,” choose a word like “forward-thinking” or “pioneering.”

Make sure the reference you give is clearly about the person you’re recommending. That sounds like common sense, but many References and recommendations are too vague or too general — they could be about anyone rather than this specific individual. To be effective, the Reference you give should not be applicable to anyone else.

Recommendations that you give should be:

  • Genuine
  • Specific
  • Descriptive (with detailed characteristics)
  • Powerful (including specific achievements, when possible)
  • Memorable
  • Honest/Truthful (credibility is important; avoid puffery or exaggeration)

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