But if you’re a recent graduate who doesn’t have a lot of work experience, who do you ask?
First, consider what an employer is actually looking for. While your resume already shows your work history, a reference can confirm your skills and experience and reveal more about you.
“Typically when people are doing reference checks they’re not really digging for dirt,” said Hugo Malan, president of Kelly Science, Engineering, Technology & Telecom, a division of workplace solutions firm Kelly. “There are two primary roles: one is simply to confirm the truth of what is represented on the resume. The other is to understand more about the person being hired: if their skills, their character, truly are a fit for the role.”
Think about who you’re going to ask
Companies often reach out to references toward the end of the hiring process. But don’t wait until you’re asked to think of potential names.
The good news is your list of potential references isn’t limited to relevant job history.
“Young adults have many more potential references than they think, they just have to look beneath the surface a little bit,” said Kathy Robinson, founder and career coach at TurningPoint.
You want to consider people who can speak to your skills, work experience and ethics, and character.
“References typically have a lot more validity if the person was in some position of authority,” said Malan. “It doesn’t have to be a job that is necessarily related or even in the same field as what you are applying for.”
Robinson suggested considering: any previous supervisors, including summer or part-time jobs or internship, professors, coaches, college advisers for an activity you’ve taken a leadership role in and people you did casual employment for, like babysitting.
“Think about it as a concentric circle,” said Robinson. “Inside the circle, the target is someone who has seen you in action from a work standpoint…someone who has seen your work output more directly.” That could be an internship boss, a professor you did research for, or a faculty adviser to a program you volunteered for.
Once you have that core established, Robinson said then you can include more secondary references, like a neighbor you baby sat for, a peer who was on a team with you or a high school or college coach.
Don’t pass along any names without checking in with people to make sure they are comfortable serving as a reference.
“Line up your references in advance and talk to them and make sure they can be a strong reference for you,” said Lesley Mitler, co-founder of Early Stage Careers. “If you hear someone hesitating or a little silence, maybe they feel like they couldn’t be the strongest reference then you don’t want to use them.”
When listing your references to an employer, prioritize them, Mitler recommended. “They may ask for three references, maybe they will check the first one or two and they’ll be fine after that. So list them in order of your preferences.”
Just remember agreeing to be a reference right now isn’t a blanket yes for all future job searches, noted Robinson. “You do need to ask them every time.”
Prep your references…to an extent
Once you get the okay to use someone as a reference, make sure you have all their current contact information and provide them with information about the role — but don’t go overboard.
“There is a balance to strike, you don’t want to go so far that you are making your potential reference feel they are being guided to say certain things they may not feel strong about,” said Malan.
But when it seems like a company might be doing the reference check, Robinson suggested sending an email that provides details about the company and position you applied for and questions and areas of focus of the interview. She suggested saying something like: “When I think about what I would love you to speak to on my behalf, an example that comes to mind is the project I worked on for X because I talked about that on the interview.”
You can also be a little more general.
“You can make the link for them, but even if you just say: ‘Here are the kinds of questions they asked and here are the competencies they seem to be looking for.’ That helps the person be able to weave those into their answer.”