How choosing the wrong referee can cost you that dream job

You’ve spent hours poring over the job ad and company website, tailoring your resume to perfectly match the skills and experience required. You’ve even drafted a killer cover letter that perfectly highlights what a great match you are, not just for the role but for the organisation as well.

So, time to submit? Not quite. There is one more aspect of your application to consider. Your referees. Whether you want to list them on your resume or hold off on providing them until asked at an interview, you need to pay as much attention to selecting your referees as you do to the rest of your application. Why? Because who you choose to use as a referee can make the difference between scoring the job of your dreams and having to go back to the job search drawing board.

It’s not a numbers game

When choosing referees always go with quality over quantity. Generally speaking having two referees should be enough to satisfy most company’s internal recruitment policies, however it doesn’t hurt to have a third just in case one of your referees is out of contact. Four referees is overkill, unless specifically requested by the employer.

Always provide at least one contact number rather than an e-mail address, unless your referee is overseas and then you should provide both. Generally speaking, prospective employers will want to have a verbal conversation with a referee so they can get all the information they need in one go rather than e-mailing back and forth.

Professional over personal

While your referees do not necessarily have to be previous employers (there are several reasons why this may not be possible), they do need to be able to speak about you in a professional setting. Select referees that can provide employers with the type of information they want. They are not interested in personal references so friends, neighbours and family members are out. Have at least one referee who has managed you, in paid employment or a volunteer capacity.

If you do not have a significant work history, have owned your own business or have lost contact with previous employers the following referee alternatives could be suitable:

  • Teacher from the qualification you have just completed (particularly useful if you are applying for roles in a new field)
  • Bank manager/contractor/long-term customer if you are a small business owner
  • President of your local sporting club where you are the Secretary
  • Supervisor from a community services organisation where you volunteer
  • Friend/family member/business owner that you have done work for

Choose wisely

Before starting at the Skills and Jobs Centre I worked in student administration at a university. When I decided to follow my dream and start applying for career counselling roles I had a choice to make. One academic I had worked closely with offered to act as a referee. They had a PhD so I knew any prospective employer would be impressed by their title, however in the end I didn’t take them up on their offer. Why? Because despite knowing they would have only positive things to say about me, personal experience told me they had a terrible phone manner. They would give one word responses and come across as seriously lacking in interest.

Far better as a referee was the junior lecturer I worked with on a project who, whilst having a far less impressive job title, was talkative, engaging and able to articulate the positive traits and skills they had seen in me. The moral of the story? A more senior position title does not necessarily make for a better referee. Pick people with whom you have worked closely and who have the verbal communication skills to clearly and enthusiastically express their recommendation of you.

Getting permission

Once you have decided on who you would like to act as your referees the next step is to ask their permission. As great as you rightly think you are not everyone will have the same opinion, so never assume that just because you worked with someone they will be falling over themselves to provide a reference for you.

Word them up

If you are lucky enough to be invited to an interview you should let your referees know as soon as possible. It’s a good idea to also send them through a copy of the job ad or position description so they can get an understanding of what the role entails and prepare some responses. If you have a close relationship with them, and feel comfortable doing so, it is perfectly fine for you ask them to highlight certain skills/previous experience that is relevant to the role you are interviewing for.

A thank you costs nothing

Regardless of whether or not you are successful in getting the role, if your referees have been contacted and provided a reference for you, you should take the time to thank them. Depending on your relationship with them this may be anything from a nice e-mail or card, to a bunch of flowers or shouting them a coffee. Not only have they taken time out of their own busy schedules to help you but you never know when you might need them to be your referee again.

Written by our resident resume queen, Christina Matthews. Sign up for Christina’s resume workshop for some more great tips on job applications.

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