Most job hunters spend a lot of time sharpening up their CV and honing their interview skills, but not much deciding who they should ask for references. But choosing the right referees is a very important part of your job hunt, as what they tell a potential employer can decide whether or not you are offered a role at that organisation.
What do referees do?
Referees give a potential employer information about your past work experience, skills, character and conduct. This information backs up what you’ve said on your CV and in interview with a third party’s opinion.
For a permanent position, referees are not normally approached until after interviews have been conducted and an employer is deciding whether or not to make an offer. Most employers will request details for at least two referees.
References are given either by email, by phone or by filling out a form sent over by the potential employer. Referees will be asked to confirm employment dates and position. They may also be asked to comment on character qualities like your reliability, punctuality or ability to work with others.
Who can be a referee?
Wherever possible, a referee should be a contact from a previous employer; ideally your line manager or someone you worked closely with. If you do not want your current employer to know you are looking for a new role, choose someone from your most recent job before that.
Don’t use a neighbour, friend or family member as a referee. Your prospective employer will view them as biased and discount their opinions.
Referees could include contacts from Saturday jobs, temporary work or volunteer positions. You could also supply details of a teacher, lecturer or tutor but work references are always preferred.
Sometimes, references are only given out by the HR department of an organisation. In this case, only basic information is likely to be provided.
Who should you choose?
The best references are given by people who know you well and who had a good working relationship with you. You don’t need to choose both referees from your most recent employer – it could be anyone who has had direct experience of working with you.
Wherever possible, choose someone who you had a friendly working relationship with, who will give you as positive and sympathetic a reference as possible. A referee will need to be able to talk about your strengths and skills and provide examples to back these up, so they need to know you (at least in a work capacity) reasonably well.
Prepare your referees
Before you pass on a referee’s details to an employer, make sure you get their permission to do so. Being asked to provide a reference with no prior warning is not pleasant and could mean they are not prepared and this may result in less positive feedback.
It’s also a good idea to brief your referees each time you pass on their details with information about the role you have applied for and what would be required of you. That way, the referee can prepare their statement before a potential employer contacts them. The more preparation a referee is able to do, the better their reference is likely to be.
Keep referee details up to date
It’s extremely important that your referees’ contact details are current and up to date. If an employer can’t get hold of one of your referees, they may think you have given them false details and are unlikely to offer you the job. Provide as many ways of contacting each referee (phone, mobile, email, company address) as possible.
It’s also a really good idea to keep in touch with your past and potential referees, as you never know when you might need to ask them to vouch for you. The job market is mobile and people move jobs all the time – so relying on being able to contact someone who worked with you still at that organisation is not a good idea. LinkedIn is an excellent way to keep in contact with past colleagues.
Keep your referees up to date with your job hunt and let them know the outcome, whether you get the role or not. If they do supply a reference, make sure you take the time to thank them for their input.
Some myths about references
Employers don’t check references
There are obviously some organisations who don’t follow up on references for various reasons. However, most will send over a reference request form at the very least and TPP always recommends that our clients check references for candidates prior to offering them a role.
Previous employers have to provide a reference
Organisations only have to provide a reference if there was a written agreement that they would do so, or they are in a regulated industry, eg financial services. Otherwise, it is entirely at their discretion, so it’s worth keeping your referees on your side!
It’s illegal to provide a bad reference
A referee cannot lie about you but they can say anything as long as it is fair and accurate. If they genuinely feel you are not suited for a role, they can say so, and they can include details about your performance and if you were dismissed from a job. However, most referees are unlikely to agree to give a reference for you if they feel it would be a bad one.
You have the right to see your reference before it’s sent
Once you’ve started a new role, you can ask your current employer to see a copy of your reference. However, you have no right to ask a referee to show you their reference, and if they have requested that their reference is not to be disclosed, your current employer may refuse to show it to you. If you feel that your job search has been harmed by a bad and unfair reference, you can appeal that decision.
Employers cannot ask for details on sick leave in a reference
Employers can ask for virtually any details that can be evidenced, including salary (although they should not ask for details on sick leave). After all, you will have to give your new employer your P45 when you start a role, so they will know how much you were paid anyway.
References: workers' rights from Gov.uk
How to Ask for a Reference
Keeping your reputation intact from Guardian Careers
And finally, Dilbert's take on giving references