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An Insider’s Guide to Getting a Great Job Reference

This post was written by Colleen McCarty, a recruiter for Earnest.

You found the perfect job, and you nailed the phone interviews and onsite ones with responses that impressively showcased your experience, aptitude, and attitude. Now you have reached the reference check stage—it’s frequently the final phase of the interviewing process where employers confirm your employment history, work performance, and qualifications by contacting your past managers and co-workers.

Are reference checks even legal? Yes and no. Many companies have a policy against giving references to protect the organization from libel. But those same companies often make their offers contingent on your satisfactory references.

Let’s forget about the larger legal issue and just assume you will be asked for references.  So what should you do? At the start of your job search, identify three to six people you have had positive and rich experience working together. You should also assume that some of the people you ask to act as a reference will decline your request … and that’s okay. Move on to the next one.

Who to Ask?

When thinking about who to ask, be sure to consider a 360-degree selection of people.


You might ask:

  • Current or past managers
  • Colleagues and internal clients.
  • External clients if your relationship is deep enough.
  • Direct reports or other members from a cross-functional team

Avoid asking or using:

  • Roommates,
  • Family members
  • Work friends
  • Anyone who can’t speak with depth to your work habits
  • Anyone who won’t speak positively,  and with confidence, about you, no matter what their title is.


Remember, having a reference from someone with a strong title is not the goal. You want people who can speak naturally and enthusiastically of their experience working with you and when that final question: — Would you rehire this person again?—is asked (and it will be!) you want them to say YES with real vigor.

When you contact someone to act as your reference, make it easy for them to say no. You don’t want anyone who is hesitant for any reason. If they are willing to act as your reference, go a step further and ask him or her what is the worst thing they would say about you? This accomplishes two things:

  1. You will know if they will be a strong reference for you
  2. If they are prepared to answer the question about any weaknesses you might have.

It is important to strategize which reference to use for certain jobs. Depending on the role, some references are better suited than others. Additionally, you should have backup references at the ready. Usually, companies want to move quickly at this point, and you will want to be able to provide additional references just in case one is unavailable or on a remote vacation.

When your references are requested by a potential employer, ask about the process. Tell them that you want to be sure your references know what to expect. This will inspire respect and confidence in your judgment.

Tip #1: Don’t wait until you are asked for references—both you and the hiring manager are excited—keep the momentum going by being prepared. Candidates who need several days to get their references together can appear at best, unprepared and at worst, un-referenceable.

Tip #2: Because this is the start of your search share what type of role you are looking for and ask if they might recommend any contacts or companies for you to explore. Frequently this will spark ideas you might not have considered and you will expand your reach in the job search!

References Are Typically Checked in Three Ways

1. Telephone or email

In this case, the hiring manager or recruiter will reach out with specific questions. The questions will be something like these:

  • How are you acquainted with the candidate?
  • What were the candidate’s daily responsibilities?
  • Where does the candidate excel?
  • What do you think the candidate can do to further their career growth?
  • Why did your working relationship end? Could they have stayed if they wanted to?
  • Would your re-hire or elect to work with the candidate again?

2. Questionnaire or survey

Some companies will use a service such as SkillSurvey where the reference check is a combination of questions to rate your skills and open-ended comments. The benefit of this is your reference can complete the survey at any time, day or night. These surveys require at least two managers and three additional peer references. SkillSurvey has done a nice job in designing an anonymous and cheat-proof system to ensure quality references are obtained.

3. An external firm

Some companies contract with external firms to check references. This usually is simple calls asking for superficial information unless they are more formal background checks for top secret clearance or another sensitive job. In which case, they can be quite invasive and lengthy.

Prep Your References on What to Expect

Before sharing your references with the company, touch base one more time to ensure this is good timing (e.g., can they make time to do this quickly?) and share the name of the person who will be reaching out to them.

This is also an excellent time to share how excited you are about the opportunity and what the job is so they can target their comments to the role. Your reference will appreciate the insight and their comments will be more on point and likely stronger as a result.

In some cases, this reference may no longer be the best choice. This could happen if they are going to be unavailable, or have less to say about this particular role. For example, is this for a client-facing role but they have never interacted with you in this capacity? While they can still speak to your work ethic, it is better to have a reference who can speak to your work ethic and the specific skills required in the job.

Unless more, or fewer, are indicated, plan to share your three best references targeted for this role. Generally name, title/company, relationship, phone and email are all you need to share. Here’s how to share their contact information:

Jim Smith
CTO/ABC Company
I was Jim’s account manager between Aug 2014 to July 2015 (working relationship ended when I was promoted)
[email protected] (preferred)

Remember to Say Thank You

Once you officially accept the job, be sure to reach out to your references to share the exciting news and to thank them for their time and belief in you.

That’s it. The more time you spend at the start of your job search the more likely the process will go quickly, smoothly, and successfully when it matters, at the end of the search. So respect your references as the valuable commodity that they are and don’t treat references as an afterthought or hope you not be asked for them. Prepare in advance so that this stage is the easiest stage in the interviewing process.

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.