In today’s competitive job market, a good reference is more valuable than ever. But preparing a reference list needs to be done right, or you could end up hurting your chances of landing the job, rather than helping.

Choose a variety of references.

In general, references fall into four categories:

  • Supervisors
  • Peers
  • Subordinates
  • Other (e.g., physician leaders, board members, consultants, county commissioner)

When preparing your reference list, you need at least one from all four of these categories. Hiring teams tend to place the most emphasis on the reference given by a candidate’s supervisor, so make sure to give careful consideration to the person you ask to be your reference in that category.

Call your references first.

After putting together your reference list, you must call your references before giving their info to a potential employer. See if they’re okay with being a reference for you. If you detect any hesitancy on their part whatsoever, you thank them for their time, then move on to another potential reference in that category.

You want enthusiastic references. A lot of HR directors and recruiters are going to be calling them over the course of your job search, and people without that enthusiasm will get tired of these conversations quickly. You need references that have sustained excitement over your qualifications, skills, and accomplishments that will come across over the phone or Zoom—multiple times over.  As they say, references can “damn with faint praise.”

Use references sparingly.

I recommend listing references in a sheet separate from your resume. Be sure to include their name, title, address, email, phone number, and how you know them. Because a conversation between a reference and a recruiter or employer can take 45 minutes to an hour, try to submit your references sheet sparingly. Do not include the reference list when you submit a resume. Otherwise, a recruiter may call a reference first about a job in which you have no interest.

Prepare for what you can’t control.

There are references you give to the search firm, and then there are what I call “back-door references.” These are people who you didn’t list on your references document, but they happen to know someone who knows you. This can be a really positive thing or really negative. Either way, you’ve got to be prepared for the organization to learn information about you outside the channels you’ve presented them.

Suppose the person you used to work for is saying negative things about you. Obviously, you would not put this person down as a reference, but often search firms will ask for the contact info of former supervisors. If a recruiter asks about it, I’d tell them to go ahead and call that person if they’d like. Often, people aren’t willing to say negative things in an on-the-record conversation.

You need to understand that once your references start receiving calls, you can no longer control who knows about your career transition. The referencing stage of the job search is usually when current employers or professional connections find out that their employee or colleague is looking to move on from their current position, and you need to be prepared for the conversations that may follow.

You should also keep in mind that you don’t get any say over how or when search firms or potential employers contact your references. Many organizations nowadays use electronic referencing, asking the people listed on your reference sheet to fill out a questionnaire. It’s not clear to me how they’re using this info—or why they don’t pick up the phone and call references to get the fullest picture possible of their candidates—but often it shows that they’re not too worried about references and only contact them to dot their “i’s” and cross their “t’s.”

Finally, if you are asked to sign a release for a search firm to contact your references, you are typically agreeing to a comprehensive review that includes criminal checks, background checks, etc. Make sure you’ve had any discussions necessary about anything that may come up on that comprehensive check before signing the release.

Don’t bother with letters of reference.

Letters of reference are not worth much. In fact, they’re noted for what they don’t say almost more than what they do say, so don’t waste your time running around getting letters of reference.  An exception would be if the reference is particularly hard to get ahold of or may die soon. Otherwise, most employers would like to be able to call and have a discussion to get a thorough reference.

Referencing can make or break your job search. A diverse, enthusiastic pool of references is essential to taking the next step in your career journey.

Author: Larry TylerAs the founder and CEO of Tyler & Company, a leading healthcare executive search firm, he specialized in CEO searches. During his tenure he conducted approximately 185. One half of those searches involved non-profit boards, the other half were advisory boards. After the sale of Tyler & Company to Jackson Healthcare in 2013, Larry stayed on during a three-year transition, developing the Practical Governance Group which gives education and training to healthcare boards. But his passion for helping senior executives find the right role remains strong.