Great news! You've made it through the interview process and now your prospective new employer wants to check your references.
Reference checks are a little complex these days. Many employers no longer permit their employees to give any kind of verbal reference, instead directing inquiries to the Human Resources Department. And HR is only able to verify dates and terms of employment (e.g. full-time, part-time, contract worker). This presumably protects the employer from potential lawsuits by former employees who claim they didn't get a job because of a bad reference. About the only thing a prospective employer can find out is whether you told the truth on your resume and/or application.
Nonetheless, employers continue to ask for references in the hopes that they will get a live person willing and able to talk about you. Fair or not, it may be a red flag to them if you can't name even one person willing to go out on a limb to give you a substantive recommendation. After all, a positive reference would not result in litigation. Therefore, the reasoning goes, you must be a poor employee or colleague if you can't get at least one person to say nice things about you.
Collect at least three references, people you know will give you a great recommendation. Preferably, these people are former supervisors and close colleagues. If you have a lengthy work history, I recommend identifying two supervisors and one close colleague. If you're relatively new to the work world, you can list a former professor and a supervisor from a summer job or internship, plus a current colleague. At more senior levels, it's great to have four or more potential references. Then you can include current colleagues from other companies.
You'll need to do a few things to make sure your reference list is in top shape.
First, make sure you ask each potential reference if they are willing to serve as such. Nothing is worse than someone being surprised by a call from a recruiter. Here's why: It's presumptuous on your part to assume they are willing to be positive about you or give a reference at all. What if they aren't allowed to give references? Recruiters know if someone is surprised, and will immediately give you major demerits for behaving unprofessionally. In addition, the person should have a chance to think about what they might say about you.
Second, it's a good idea to reconnect with references every time you seek a job even if they've agreed to do so in the past. Alert them that someone will be calling to get a reference from her so they are aware and can start thinking of what to say. Plus, you can chat a bit about the position and why you want it, subtly emphasizing the things you want them to say. You also can tell them you want to make sure you are giving the correct contact information.
Third, put the list in writing. Make a Word document that lists each reference by name, gives their current title and employer (if they are working), identifies the nature of your relationship and length of time the person knows you (e.g. direct supervisor at XYZ Company for 4 years), and provides current contact information (preferably a telephone number). If you save it on your hard drive, you can e-mail it or print it out as needed, as well as update it.
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