How To Choose and Manage Job References: A Critical, But Often Overlooked Component of an Effective Job Search Strategy

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HR manager checking job references

Seven Steps to Effectively Selecting and Managing Your Job References

Choosing job references is often treated as an afterthought by job seekers. However, references deserve to be treated as a critical and highly strategic part of the job search process. Prospective employers look to your references to vouch for your character and credibility. The right reference can sway hiring decisions in your favor, providing valuable and compelling insights into your professional skills and abilities.

1. Master the Art of Reference Selection

The professionalism of your references is a reflection of your own professionalism. Choose individuals who maintain a professional demeanor and can speak eloquently about your skills and achievements, presenting you in the best light. Avoid references who may not portray you positively. Experienced HR and hiring managers can share stories of job references who said unfavorable things about job candidates. Thoroughly vet your references and never select any reference you’re uncertain about. If you have any doubts, take them off your list.

2. Align Your References with the Company You’re Interviewing With and Job Requirements

References are not one-size-fits-all. Ideally, target your references to the job you are seeking, selecting references that have credibility and relevance. If you have references in the same or related industry to the employer’s industry, consider using those references first. If any potential references work at the company you’re interviewing with, they should also be on the list. Make references as relevant as possible, creating a custom-made showcase that directly speaks to the needs of the role you are interviewing for. The more credibility your references have with the employer, the better it reflects upon you. Remember, their credibility lends itself to yours.

3. Choose Recent References First, But Include Various Stages of Your Career

You want references who can speak to who you are today. Recency matters. If you have five references, it’s okay to have one from a position several years ago, but keep the majority of your references recent. It’s ideal to have references who can speak to different aspects of your skills. For example, depending on your experience and seniority, an ideal mix might include your former bosses (managers), co-workers, subordinates and managers from other departments that you’ve worked with such as in PR, product management, IT or finance. If you’re a recent college graduate, consider asking supervisors from any internships or volunteer work, and college professors who can vouch for your work ethic / drive, consistency, intellect, and ability to maintain healthy work relationships.

4. Consider The Breadth of the Picture Your References Paint

Craft a mosaic of references that paints a comprehensive picture of your professional journey. Include voices from various stages of your career, each representing a different facet of your skills and abilities. This diversity adds depth and authenticity to your professional narrative.

5. Provide Guidance and Communicate Clearly with Your References About What Matters Most to the Prospective Employer

Your references are your advocates. They’re looking to help you. Make sure to provide guidance on the position and the specific skills and experiences you’d like them to highlight. Help prepare them for the questions a prospective employer might have so they can confidently support you, increasing your chances of being offered the role.

6. Anticipate What Your References will Be Asked About and Ensure They’re Prepared and Tell a Story That Aligns with Yours

Employers want to match up the story you’re telling them with what your references say. Anticipate questions from the employer about your strengths and weaknesses and discuss this with your references and ensure that their take aligns with what you’re telling employers.

7. Keep Your References in the Loop On Where You’re At With An Employer and Your Job Search

Stay in touch with your references and keep them up to date on your search. Make sure they are aware of what’s going on and not surprised on a call with a prospective employer.


In the competitive landscape of today’s job market for marketing, advertising, communications and PR professionals, the references you choose can be the secret sauce that elevates you above the rest. By investing time in understanding the job requirements, selecting relevant and diverse references, seeking permission, communicating clearly, and tailoring your choices, you can master the art of reference selection. Remember, the right references not only vouch for your skills but also help you build credibility in the eyes of potential employers. So, choose wisely, and let your references become the champions of your professional journey.

If you’re interested in knowing what past employers are telling prospective employers about you, be sure to explore reference check services.


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