job referencesEach time you make it past the résumé-review stage and interview with a potential employer, the meeting seems to go really well. But then—crickets. If you do hear from the employer, it’s only to say that they’ve decided to go with another candidate. As you wearily send out application after application, you just can’t figure out what’s going wrong. Author Peter K. Studner has an idea: One of your references might inadvertently be derailing your job search campaign.

“When a potential employer checks your references, it’s because they’re serious about hiring you,” says Studner, author of Super Job Search IV: The Complete Manual for Job Seekers & Career Changers ( “And especially in today’s competitive market, a single lukewarm reference can kill your candidacy. The good news is, by choosing your references thoughtfully and talking with them before giving out their contact information, you can guide the process in your favor.”

Studner, who is a master career counselor and whose outplacement firm has helped over 27,000 people transition from one job to the next, speaks from experience. In Super Job Search IV, he guides readers through the complicated process of evaluating their accomplishments, contacts, and goals, and channeling those things into a targeted and ultimately successful job search campaign. Best of all, Super Job Search IV isn’t “just” a book—it’s a systematic approach to finding a job that includes online resources and an app.

Here, Studner shares five things to do when organizing your references:

Choose your references carefully. Your best references will support claims you’ve made about your achievements, skills, and experience, so ideally, they’ll be people who have worked closely with you in the past. Consider former managers and supervisors, of course, but if you’ve been in a managerial position yourself, you might also want to include a few people you’ve supervised.

“In addition, put some thought into how your references might present you to potential employers,” Studner advises. “Effective references are good communicators who can discuss you and your work in an objective manner without exaggerating or offering long-winded tributes that might only provoke more questions in the interviewer’s mind.”

Think about how each reference can best support you. While most references will give you a good to excellent report, some might inadvertently include a hint that your previous work was less than standard or that the circumstances of your leaving were not good. For instance, “Cameron is a high achiever and doesn’t suffer fools,” might make an interviewer think, What if Cameron is too picky and demanding to get along with our team?

“Put some thought into what you’d like each reference to say about you,” Studner recommends. “Think about the specific skills and accomplishments you’d like them to emphasize. Keep in mind that this information might vary from person to person, and even from potential job to potential job.”

Set up a time to meet… Now it’s time to discuss your job search, career goals, and résumé with your references. “Whenever possible, your reference meetings should be face-to-face,” Studner says. “If distance is prohibitive, though, consider a video conference or phone call. However you meet, make sure your references have a copy of your résumé.”

…and discuss the hard questions. When potential employers call your references, it’s unlikely that the employer will simply say, “So, tell me about Taylor.” Ergo, your references will probably have to go beyond the script you’ve given them about your skills and accomplishments. “That’s why it’s a good idea to talk about how the reference would approach common interview questions,” Studner says. “This conversation might be uncomfortable at times, but it’s best to have an honest discussion about how each reference might approach difficult questions.”

To guide the discussion, here are 13 common questions potential employers might ask your references:

  • “How did you know the candidate?”
  • “What were the circumstances of his leaving the company?”
  • “Was she on any performance improvement plan? How did she do?” This may be asked if there are hints of any problems with your application.
  • “What are his strong points?”
  • “In what areas does she need improvement?”
  • “Would you hire him again?”
  • “What were her greatest achievements at the company?”
  • “Who else supervised him?” Be prepared; another supervisor may also be approached, even though he is not on your list.
  • “Did the candidate live up to your expectations?”
  • “How were her leadership skills?” This question will be asked if you are applying for a managerial position.
  • “Was he appreciated by his colleagues?”
  • “Was she reliable?”
  • “Anything else you can add about the candidate?”

Keep your references in the loop. So that they aren’t blindsided, keep your references informed about positions to which you’ve applied, interviews you’ve had, and potential employers who have requested contact information for references.

“See if you can have your reference update you about when they’re approached and how the discussion went,” Studner suggests. “If appropriate, nurture the relationship with non-job-search communication, maybe over lunch or coffee. And when you get hired, thank your references for their support.”

“Just like your résumé and interview question responses, the more time and energy you put into cultivating your references, the more valuable they’ll be,” Studner concludes. “So don’t treat references as an afterthought—these people can make or break your job campaign!”


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