One of the tricky parts of job hunting is responding to a potential employer’s request for professional references. To answer the questions going through your mind: yes, you really do need references, and yes, employers really do check references. According to Fast Company, “a glowing reference could be what gives job hunters the edge they need to shine over the competition, especially in today’s corporate culture where there’s a lot at stake if you hire a poor fit.”

Every executive, recruiter, and hiring manager knows that hiring a new employee is expensive. Many businesses farm out the search for new employees to recruiters and employment agencies, preferring to hire a third party to review applications and evaluate candidates in order to compile a short list of potential hires for interview. The recruiter may even be involved in the interview process. This process takes time and the service doesn’t come cheaply.

After a candidate is hired, the expense accrues, incurred through employee training as other personnel are diverted from their work to get the new employee up to speed, clients are put on notice with exhortations for patience, mistakes are made and corrected, and so forth. That learning curve costs money and time, if only because the “new guy” is being paid while not yet contributing significantly to the business.

Choose your references wisely. As Fast Company advises, select people with whom you are friendly, but not too friendly. Hiring personnel do check job candidates’ social media connections. Therefore, your best friend who’s a rabid conspiracy theorist and likes to post inflammatory content on his social media pages probably isn’t the best reference from a hiring manager’s point of view. After all, we’re often known by the company we keep.

The request for references from a potential employer indicates that the company has serious interest in you. It’s a compliment: you have impressed the hiring manager as the best fit for the job. However, a negative or inappropriate reference can easily turn opinion against you. Therefore, you need to have the right references: not just anyone will do.

Obtaining references

The time to nail down your references begins before you apply for a job. Etiquette governs the exchange of professional references. Before listing someone as a reference, ask him or her if he or she agrees to serve as a reference. This has three advantages: 1) that person now knows you’re hunting for a job; 2) that person won’t be blindsided by a call asking for a reference and blurt out something damaging in surprise; and, 3) you can use the letter as often as necessary without annoying a reference with repeated calls from hiring managers. Don’t put your reference in the position of resenting the obligation to extol your virtues.

Asking for someone need be nothing more than a simply request: “Would you please serve as a reference for me?” Do not list that person as a reference unless you have asked him or her and received a positive response. The Balance advises job hunters to “only ask people who you know will give you a positive reference.” That may seem self-evident, but all too often people make a mistake in listing a former supervisor or manager with whom the candidate had an adversarial relationship.

If you are entering the job market for the first time and don’t have professional references, then consider your volunteer activities. Do you participate in civic, charitable, or social organizations? What do you do for those organizations? Did you plan the organization’s parties? Or did you serve as an association’s president or vice president? Did you teach or train club members? Volunteer service, especially at the board level, always looks good on a résumé. Ask board members for their references testifying to your competence and skills. Teachers and other academic personnel who can vouch for your work ethic and good attitude may also serve as character references for those who lack professional references.

The Balance also cautions job seekers that not all employers provide job references due to litigation concerns. Such companies will only confirm your job title, dates of employment, and salary history, although the latter is none of the hiring company’s business and should have no bearing upon the hiring decision. (Yes, it’s intrusive and some states have already made asking a candidate for his or her salary history illegal, but thus far there’s no law prohibiting a hiring company from asking the candidate’s previous employer about that candidate’s salary history. Beware of loopholes.) Don’t forget the clients with whom you worked: they can make excellent references.

When someone agrees to serve as your reference, give that person the information he or she needs to know provide a positive reference. Your updated résumé should suffice as a summary of the skills and qualifications you want the reference to confirm. Don’t forget to thank that person for serving as your reference. Follow up a verbal thank-you with a handwritten note of gratitude.

Letters of reference

If at all possible, ask colleagues and supervising personnel for letters of reference or letters of recommendation when leaving a job. Even if you cannot go back to that person later—for instance, if that person has moved and you’ve lost contact—then you will have the physical record of that person’s support and positive testimony regarding your performance at the job you held at that company.

Especially when requesting a reference letter from a character reference—or if someone requests that you write a recommendation letter for him or her—suggest that the letter mention such traits as: maturity, responsibility, ability to get along well with others, ability to learn quickly, enthusiasm, good manners/politeness, ability to follow instructions, ability to work independently. Identify the traits that pertain to the job. TotalJobs cautions against using superlatives in reference letters. “The world’s greatest” or other such effusive compliments lack professionalism.

Letters of recommendation or reference do not subscribe to a singular, standard format other than being written as a business letter with a proper salutation and closing. The letter should confirm the relationship between the reference and the job candidate, the years of that relationship (e.g., “I have known [insert name here] for X years”). 

The next paragraph details how the reference knows the candidate and lists some positive attributes with examples (e.g., “X demonstrates patience and a calm attitude when dealing with excited, boisterous children at our organization’s family picnics”) and includes a recommendation for the role to which you have applied (e.g., “I highly recommend X as an employee for [company name] and have no doubt s/he would serve admirably as [job title]”). 

The letter then ends with the writer’s statement of availability to provide further information if requested.

Dealing with a negative reference

If a glowing reference can secure the job offer, then a negative or lukewarm reference can kill it. As Suzanne Lucas notes in her article “5 Ways to Overcome a Bad Reference”: 

In an ideal world, all bosses would be fantastic, and the only bad references would be for former employees who deserved the bad reference. In the real world, some managers are mean and vindictive and will set out to destroy people who were great employees.

Even if you deserve a negative or tepid reference for having been a less than stellar employee, you can still rise above it and not let it ruin your career.

If you are currently employed—and especially if your boss is a jerk—then you can refuse permission allowing the hiring company or recruiter to contact him simply because you do not want your current employer to know that you want to leave. The hiring manager or recruiter should be courteous to ask for such permission and then to comply with your request not to contact your current employer.

If you are not sure whether someone will follow through with a positive recommendation, have a trusted friend pose as a recruiter or hiring manager to call that person to ask for the reference. The Balance notes that some job candidates hire reference checking services to discover what past employers say about them. That might seem sneaky and underhanded, but it may also be the only way you get honest feedback and accurate information.

In other situations where a bad reference arises from misinformation or misunderstanding, have a personal conversation with that person to try to resolve the issue. If the parting of ways left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth, then you warn hiring personnel of the pending negative reference and explain why it will be negative. Top Resume advises: Don’t make excuses, don’t accuse or imply the company is wrong, and take responsibility for your mistakes: that shows maturity. If nothing else, ask the person giving you a bad reference to stop doing so and send a cease and desist letter to an influential company executive to enforce the request.

Especially in this age of social networking, references affect careers. Choose yours carefully and be prepared to respond in kind when they need a good reference.