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The 3 golden rules of getting a great reference

When you’re looking for a job, consider that what others say about you can at times be even more important than what you say about yourself.

So while you’re polishing your CV and your cover letter, don’t forget to think about choosing the best possible referees to include.

Having high quality references isn’t just about putting your previous two or three employers at the end of your CV and hoping for the best. To get a truly great reference, and to avoid annoying previous employers with unsolicited reference checks, follow these three golden rules:

1. Select the best

An effective referee is one who can give meaningful and relevant answers, so be sure not to choose previous employers who can’t speak to the skills applicable to the job you are applying for. Like a cover letter or CV, your referees should (if possible), change depending on the job you are applying for.

For example, if you’re applying for a disability job that requires great people-skills, then using a referee from a data entry job where you didn’t have any interaction with clients won’t be a great fit.  It may result in your referee being ill prepared to answer questions, which won’t reflect well on you.

However, if you are limited with the number of referees you have to choose from – that’s ok. Just make sure you contact them well in advance and give them lots of information about the jobs you are applying for so they are prepared.

2. Talk it over

The most important rule is to ask your intended referee’s permission before including them in your application. Even if you know they’ll say yes, it’s possible they’ll be away or unavailable at the appropriate time, so make sure they’re happy to talk about you, and they know when they might be contacted.

Initial phone calls to your intended referees are ideal, but email is also fine if that isn’t possible. Contacting referees before applying is also a great networking move – you never know – they might even know of an upcoming job that you’d be perfect for!

You should contact your referees at least twice throughout the job application process:

  • When you start applying for jobs, contact your relevant previous employers and let them know that you want to include them as a referee in your applications. It’s important at this point to explain which job(s) you are applying for and why you think you’d do well in the role. Your explanation can explain your motivations and provide some valuable talking points to your referee if they are contacted by your potential employer. It’s also the time to discuss and clarify any ambiguous issues – for example, the reasons you left a previous role, or the reason you’re wanting to make a career change.
  • Once you have a job interview you should send your referees an email and let them know the good news. A simple one or two line email is fine so they’re prepared to receive a reference call if the interview goes well. It’s a good idea to attach the role’s position description to this email so your referee can review it and think about what they might say in advance.

Here’s an example of the email you might send:

“Hi [referee], thanks so much for agreeing to be my referee. I’m just writing to let you know I have been successful in getting an interview with [employer] so you may receive a reference call in the next 1-2 weeks.  I’ve attached the position description for your information.”

3. Say thank you

You should always thank your referees and keep them updated regardless of whether you’re successful in getting the job or not. Remember, being a referee takes time and effort, so it’s always nice to acknowledge this. If you get the job you might like to send them an email a few weeks after you’ve started to let them know how it’s going, or even a small gift to thank them for their contribution to your new job!


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