Collecting a reliable set of employment references is an ongoing process that you have to maintain throughout the course of your career. Supplying them is usually the last hurdle you have to clear when securing each new job along the way.

Have you ever been in a position where you’ve been concerned about providing a specific reference? Worried about a potential bad reference or just figuring out who the best possible reference would be for the job at hand.

We had one incident here at Workopolis where a young woman came in for an internship. She had a list of three referenced which she slid across the desk. After a second or two she leaned over and tapped the first name and said, “But don’t call that one.” Then after another second’s reflection, she indicated the second contact (on the list of three) and said, “Better not call that one either.”

This is clearly the case of someone who felt it was obligatory to list their last three bosses, regardless of how well those jobs turned out or what their relationship with the former employer was like. Obviously, this isn’t the case. Listing these contacts, but then warning us not to get in touch with them was a bigger red flag than if she had listed former employers from older jobs, coworkers, teachers or anyone really who she could be confident that would speak well of her.   

It can certainly be challenging deciding which past employers you’d like a hiring manager to speak to. I’ve submitted references for jobs I held three positions ago, and have wondered if that might be a red flag, but do so because I know they can speak to a specific skill set. The worst is wondering if a past employer you didn’t particularly like or get along with, will provide a fair reference – particularly when you need to include them. Selecting the right references can be tricky business.

When crafting your list, first and foremost list references that are able to speak well of your work in relation to the new position; it’s a similar process to crafting your resume to fit the job description. If your career has travelled a relatively straight path, this shouldn’t be a problem. If it hasn’t, you may need to be more selective.

Once you’ve craft your ideal list, here are some tips to make the most of what your reference can offer:

  1. Talk to your references: never submit a reference without contacting them first. No one likes to be taken off guard by a hiring manager. It’s important to acknowledge that you are in fact asking for your past employer’s time. If you don’t ask, you may be setting yourself up for a less than ideal reference.
  2. Provide background information: Give your reference all the information they may need. I have often sent an email letting my reference know what was discussed in the interview, potential questions that may arise, and the type of information a reference may be seeking – to the best of my ability. Again, people are busy and having this type of information allows them to prepare ahead of time. They can focus on the conversation rather than stumbling over questions they aren’t prepared for.
  3. Handling a bad reference: according to Jeff Shane, executive vice president at Allison & Taylor, a firm that conducts reference checks for corporations and job seekers, one approach for managing a potentially bad reference is to reach out to the person. If you have to include them on your list and you’re worried about what they might say or have said, connect with them and see if you can come to an agreement. Another option is to contact the human resources department for advice, or ask that they only provide neutral information such as the dates you were employed and your position.
  4. Explain your references: if you are using a dated reference, write a brief note to the hiring manager explaining your selection and how you feel each reference can speak to the skills and experience you’ll bring to the job.

Selecting the right references is key to the final part of the job seeking process. Make sure you always keep a list of possible references and a summary of the skill sets they’re qualified to speak about.