You've written a great cover letter and resume and nailed an in-person interview. "We'll be contacting your references," your interviewer tells you. Do you feel confident you know what your references will say?
Your job references are just as important as your resume, cover letter and interview. It's important to choose your references well, and prepare them so they can give an honest review of your work – and help you land your next job.
Choose strong references
Ideally, your references are your direct supervisors from your past two or three positions. Potential employers want to talk to people who directly managed you in order to get a sense of your work habits, accomplishments and skills. If you do not want to use your past managers as references, consider coworkers who were senior to you, organizational leaders from volunteer groups and other high-ranking individuals with whom you have worked closely.
Reach out to your references
Don't underestimate the importance of reaching out to your references to prep them before they receive a call from a potential employer. It's a courtesy to give them the head's up that they'll get the call, but it also saves you from unwanted embarrassment. If they are caught off-guard, a manager with whom you have not worked in several years may not readily be able to speak to your work ethic and accomplishments (or, even worse, may not remember who you are off the top of their head…).
Additionally, contacting your references can also give you a read on how well they will represent you. If they don’t sound enthused or maybe they sound slightly confused at the request to BE your reference, you know it’s time to look elsewhere for someone who will speak well of you.
When you reach out to your references, ask (don't tell) them if they would be your reference. Tell them why you are applying for a new job, and highlight some of your recent accomplishments. This makes it easy for them to be prepared and excited when your interviewer calls to ask them their opinion of you.
Asking your references permission can also help avoid uncomfortable situations. If a past manager does not, for whatever reason, want to be your reference, you do not want them giving a negative (or even lukewarm) reference to a potential employer. By asking ahead of time, you give them the opportunity to gracefully bow out, allowing you to find another reference.