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How to Prepare Professional References That Get You the Job

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A good professional reference makes all the difference when trying to land a new job.

The whole reference-check process can be a little nerve-racking for candidates, because it happens mostly behind closed doors. You can’t be there when your prospective employer calls your references.

That’s why we asked Aerotek Senior Professional Recruiter Lead Matt Wiehe for advice. He’s been involved in placing job candidates for nearly seven years, and has spent a great deal of that time talking with professional references to get a feel for how qualified candidates may be for a given position.

His advice? One word: preparation.

Find what’s needed

The first step in preparing your references is finding the right people to speak on your behalf. According to Wiehe, references tend to be more effective when they’re:

  • Current: references that can speak to your experiences over the last five years give employers a better picture of where you’re at now, skills-wise.
  • Relevant: when a reference is able to speak directly to the specific abilities you’ve developed throughout work history that are also relevant to the position you’re applying for, it definitely helps your case.
  • Professional: while it may be tempting to reach out to friends, family or clergy who you know will give you a glowing review, prospective employers are most interested in what kind of employee you’ll be, and how your personality applies to a work setting.

When talking to employers about the viability of various candidates, says Wiehe, “I want to be able to share candidates who best match employer needs, and it helps a great deal when I can back up my own point of view with what the references say about the candidate.”

Expanding your reach

Not everybody can easily find two or three references that are current, relevant, and professional. Perhaps you would prefer to avoid letting a current long-term employer know you’re looking for other opportunities, have a difficult relationship with a past manager, or you’re early in your career track.


In these cases, Wiehe recommends looking for references in different places than ordinarily expected. “A good reference doesn't always have to be a direct manager,” he says, “You can ask a peer, or somebody is no longer with your current company but can speak to the quality of your work.”

Helping you find ideal references is one area where partnering with a recruiter can help you find flexible workarounds.

Connect with your references

Once you’ve settled on who will best speak on your behalf to prospective employers, make sure to check in. Let your references know that they can expect to be contacted soon, who’s going to contact them and what sort of positions you’ll be seeking.

Says Wiehe, “This sort of check-in helps the process go smoothly and quickly. I appreciate it because it makes my job easier, but the time saved when your references are prepared helps you more than anybody. It makes a difference in how fast your application gets submitted, how quickly you’re interviewed, get the job, and get through compliance for your first day.”

You may also wish to inform your references of the kind of questions they can expect to be asked about your tenure. Wiehe says he tends to ask “what I call ‘TED-W questions,’ which stands for Tell me about at a time, Explain to me a time, Describe to me a time, and Walk me through a time. Basically, I ask for stories that illustrate your skills in action, and if they tell me a great one, that really sets you apart from other candidates.”

Your references might not remember everything about working with you, and given that they may be asked to recall some specifics instances that illustrate your performance, it’s a good idea to give them the time to think about what they’re going to say before their phone rings.

Work with a partner you trust

If you’re concerned about your ability to find and prepare the right references, it might help to reach out to a recruiting partner to help find solutions. Maybe you’ve got a perfect reference that doesn’t seem to match the above criteria, or you’re just not sure where to look.

Honesty is the best policy. According to Wiehe, “I'd rather have someone be honest with me and try to work around it than someone who tries to pull a fast one. It ultimately helps no one if your first day on the job is also your last.”

Do you have a recruiting partner you trust? Aerotek recruiters are here to help guide you through the job application process. To find a position that’s suited for your goals, visit our job board to find your next great opportunity. Create a free career account today to customize your search.