How to Coach Your References to Help You Land a Job, According to an HR Expert

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Applying to and interviewing for a job takes a lot legwork on your part—crafting the best damn resume the hiring manager has ever see, doing your pre-interview homework, and ensuring you make a good impression in the room. But eventually, you may need to put your fate in someone else’s hands…and provide references.

Providing references can be nerve- wracking, because even if you have a great relationship with a former colleague or manager, you never really know what they’ll say when the hiring manager gets them on the line. So why not gently suggest some talking points before that happens?

If you’re using your current or former employer as a reference, talk it out first

Some jobs will ask if they can reach out to your current employer to find out if you’re in good standing at the company. Other times, you may have a solid relationship with your current boss and want them to talk up your abilities as a worker. In either case, don’t let the call come as a surprise. Ask your reference in advance if they’d be comfortable discussing your experience and professionalism with a prospective employer—and be very sure they aren’t going to downplay your excellence in an attempt to keep you where you are. (If you think your boss may dog you, avoid using them as a reference.)

A boss can be a powerful ally in your job hunt. What they have to say is taken seriously. Jan R., a music industry veteran and small business owner in New York City, told Lifehacker she pays closer attention to a candidate whose boss “says they’re sad to see the employee go and would hire them again.” A boss’ sincere stamp of approval goes a long way.

As for personal references, and work with them closely before the call

When a former colleague or friend the one hyping you up to a hiring manager, you have a better chance of shaping the conversation in advance. In the past, people writing reference letters for me have even asked me to send over a bulleted list of attributes I want them to highlight. Is that how a reference letter is supposed to work? No. Does that mean your competition for the job isn’t doing the same thing? Also no.

Think about what you want your references to say—and them talk to them honestly about it. Ask your references to complement and bolster claims you made during your interview, and fill in the gaps for anything you wish had been covered. If your cover letter was all about how hard-working and industrious you are, ask a personal reference to make the case for your sterling personality and great team-working abilities. If your interviews mostly focused on how well you did in a crisis situation or what ideas you have about the company’s future, make sure your references are ready to talk about what it was like to work with you day to day.

Jan noted she’s particularly attuned to the word “trustworthy,” and takes it seriously when a reference suggests a candidate is dependable. On the other hand, human resources guru Tim Sackett, president of of the information technology and engineering staffing firm HRU Technical Resources, said he’s looking for different qualities in each role he’s hiring for, so he watches out for descriptions from references that match up with what the job will entail. “I might need someone who can really work independently without much direction for one position, but someone who would prefer to work on a team and follow specific direction for another,” he noted. In the same way you’ve been trained to stick words from the job listing into your cover letter, prep your referrers to talk specifically about expectations mentioned in the job description.

Sackett also places a focus on sussing out a candidate’s work ethic. He wants to hear that a potential hire “gets stuff over the finish line” and is collaborative in their work approach. Ideally, he said, a reference will give specific examples of completed projects, rather than only generalities about how they are to work with.

How will your references be contacted?

One thing to consider: How will your references be contacted? Sacknett noted digital references—like a Q&A form the references fills out—can be more useful for hiring managers than a phone call. When references are contacted in person or by phone, candidates almost never get rejected, he noted, but the rejection rate is higher—about 10%—when digital forms are sent to the referrers. If you can, find out what kind of referral your references will be asked to complete. If it’s a form, hammer home what you hope they’ll say, and suggest concrete examples of your work they can highlight. As long as they focus on your trustworthiness and ability to get shit done, you should be golden.


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