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Working Capital - Mission Blog

<<Mission Blog Home Posted: 03-11-2019

All job seekers are asked for a list of references when being considered for a new position. Most people typically have a short list of boilerplate contacts who they know will say good things about them. Many of them are people that they’ve known for years. Seems pretty cut and dry, right? But should it be?

Having the right references may seem like an afterthought because the contacts you provide are certainly going to say good things about you. However, the business of job hunting has become far more complicated than it once was. HIPAA restrictions prevent some of your best references from sharing much information about you, and good contacts come and go. To remain competitive, job applicants need to take a more thoughtful and strategic approach to building a list of references. If you’re in the job market, here are a few tips you might want to consider.

In case you’re unaware, a former supervisor or co-worker may only be able to share limited information about you when called for a reference. If your contact is still employed by the company you left, the only information s/he can provide is confirmation of your employment and the dates you were employed. They can’t even tell the caller whether or not you were a good employee. So before you put down a former business associate as a reference you may want to first wait until they have left the company where you both worked. Once neither of you is employed there any longer, your reference can share any information about you that s/he wants.

Also, unless you have a strong relationship with the people you’re using as a reference, you should always, ALWAYS ask them if you can include them as a reference first! Never assume that they’ll feel comfortable giving you a reference just because you worked together. You never know how they’ll actually respond. 

A few years ago our HR department contacted me about a man who was applying for a job with my employer. He listed me as a reference claiming that we used to work together. Unfortunately, he didn’t contact me first to seek permission. When HR called me about him, I honestly couldn’t remember who he was! To this day I still can’t, though in fairness, his name sounded vaguely familiar. By adding me as a reference but not contacting me first, he actually damaged his chances of securing employment rather than enhancing them. I couldn’t share any information about him and it may have created the perception that he was lying about knowing me just to improve his odds of getting the job. Maybe he thought they would never check.

When possible it’s also a good strategy to have references who do the job for which you are applying. They can answer questions directly related to your ability to handle the new job responsibilities. That level of feedback provides more credibility to their reference and makes you appear to be a more qualified candidate. According to, “When selecting resume references, you should always consider people who can speak to your best qualities, skills and qualifications. If possible, choose people who can discuss talents specific to the job you’re applying for.”

Finally, a dangerous assumption that many job applicants make is that a big title is more important on a list of references than a really good contact. If someone calls your references, you want them to make it sound like the company you’re interviewing with would be foolish not to hire you. If the best person to share that opinion is a mid-level employee – that’s just fine. It’s far better than having someone on your reference list with a VP title, but who can’t say anything more about you than, “you seemed like a pretty good guy.” 

Who knew that creating a list of references could be so involved. But if you really want to improve your chances of landing that next great job – take it seriously. Your potential employer will.

Working Capital, Goodwill mission blog author
This article was written by: Brendan Hurley
Chief Marketing Officer

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