How to Get Good Professional References
Having respected and highly targeted professional references is key to proving your value to future and even current employers. When considering an employee for a new internal role, managers like to see agreement about that person’s strengths among team members and others inside the organization. To minimize the risk of bringing an employee into a new role, hiring managers and recruiters like to get confirmation of a candidate’s value and impact and to know that others have had a positive experience with that person.
The once ubiquitous reference letter has largely been replaced by LinkedIn testimonials and a reference list of people willing to have conversations with prospective and internal employers. At minimum, you want to have three references for each and that your recommendations and references are ready, willing, and able to give you the type of glowing review you’ll need to beat out the competition.
So, how do you ensure the right reference is ready to go? What if you need a specific recommendation for a project or certain type of work? How do you get recommendations from people when you are still working?
If you don’t already have at least 3 references, or if your references don’t reflect your current career goals, here are 5 ways to get the best professional recommendations you need to propel you into the next steps in your career.
#1 Identify internal contacts
Choose colleagues who know your work and with whom you have a solid professional relationship. This may not be your closest work BFF. Your best internal references may be managers, peers, project leaders, clients, or customers who have experienced you at your best and are willing and able to comment on your expertise, work style, and accomplishments.
When looking for people to be your references, you aren’t limited to managers and supervisors, and you aren’t limited to references only at the time of a job offer. You can request a variety of work associates, including longtime vendors, customers or clients, peers in other departments, and even direct reports to provide recommendations for you on LinkedIn even when you aren’t looking for a job.
Encourage those writing recommendations to comment on a specific project that you worked on together, or one or two skills that you demonstrated over the years, complete with examples of those skills. Develop a reference list that includes the person’s name, relationship to you, current company name, and project title. Creating a list in advance and updating information regularly will ensure you have all the contact information you need, when you need it.
#2 Network through LinkedIn
Utilize LinkedIn to develop your network and gain immediate references. No matter your industry, function, or level, LinkedIn provides an amazing foundation for career transition and development for external as well as internal roles. With nearly 600 million members in 200+ countries, LinkedIn makes it easy to find a current or former coworker, alumni or neighbor. 500,000+ hiring managers and recruiters use LinkedIn to source candidates. LinkedIn is no longer a “nice to have” for companies or candidates. It is an essential tool to finding a job or advancing in your career. Ask your trusted colleagues in person if they can recommend you on LinkedIn and, if they agree, let them know you will send a LinkedIn request.
Most often, prospective employers will not see your reference list until you are in the group of those being considered. However, they will generally look at LinkedIn to garner additional information about you. Hiring managers will also look at LinkedIn for insight into internal candidates, and LinkedIn references are advantageous for those looking to get to know you better after a positive work or networking experience. Having a few glowing LinkedIn recommendations that reference the required skills for the position, along with an enthusiastic manager or other key member from a former employer who is willing to be a phone reference can make all the difference between getting the position or coming in second place.
If you are new to the LinkedIn reference tool, simply visit the profile of the selected collegial request. Once you have references, you can ask for additional references from a link in your profile. If you’re not sure where to start looking for people to be your references, consider any professional organizations or groups where you are an active member. Reach out to people you know from former companies, trade organizations, or schools.
#3 Coach your references
Remind any potential references about important projects and skills you used while working with them, but be sure they are clear on the skills relevant to your target position. Though your former manager may be able to talk endlessly about your stellar design skills, perhaps your ability leading and collaborating on large-scale projects with cross-functional teams would reflect better on you and your current managerial pursuits. You might ask team members to refer to a particular event or project, allowing them to focus on the soft and hard skills you were able to bring to the situation, the specific actions you took, and the results you were able to achieve.
It’s not enough to just gather references and then provide their names and contact information when asked. Be sure to alert references when you’ve used them and give them an idea when to expect contact from your potential employer. Before you give the hiring manager your reference information, make sure those individuals will be available and willing to take the call. Don’t risk a job offer by giving a reference that is on holiday for a month or someone that is notoriously hard to reach.
Providing names of people who won’t be available and responsive to requests may reflect poorly on you and it will be frustrating to the hiring manager who is attempting to fill a role. Given the impact on their time, potential hiring managers likely won’t chase down your references if they don’t return calls or emails.
Stay in contact with your references to find out what kinds of questions the recruiter or hiring manager has asked and to understand how those questions were answered. Depending on how the call went, you may choose to provide more information to your references in the future, or you may decide to change who you are offering to represent you as a reference.
#4 Write a personalized message.
Whether you are making the request in person or via email or LinkedIn, let your contacts know why you are choosing them and what you want them to address. For LinkedIn, your message has to be pretty short – around 300 characters. We encourage you to ask your colleague to reference a specific skill. For instance, if you’re an IT Manager, one reference might speak to your technical skills, one to your people management skills, and one to project management skills. If this is a spoken reference, you might ask that they reference all of those skills.
Here’s an example of a LinkedIn message:
Hi Kimberly– Hope you are doing well! I’m looking for my next role and would really appreciate your LinkedIn recommendation, particularly addressing my skill in customer service as well as team development. It would be great if you could include the outcome of raising the customer satisfaction rate by 10% across the team. Please let me know if you have any questions or if you would prefer I send you a starter recommendation to customize. Thank you! Penelope
#5 Extend your network
Your network extends beyond your first level connections. A well-known first connection can lead to a recommendation from a lesser known colleague. Individuals often have success getting a recommendation from someone following a networking meeting, set up by a mutual colleague. At the end of the meeting, simply ask, “would you be comfortable recommending me to the hiring manager.”
Whether to ask or not is something you must “read” in the moment, based on the rapport you’ve established. If you’ve been able to discuss the work you’ve done and the successes you’ve had, someone you’ve met through a trusted colleague may be willing to pass on your information to key contacts at your target organization. Be careful not to turn a networking meeting into just asking for yourself. Find out if there is something you can provide in return. And, of course, it’s understood that you don’t expect a comprehensive recommendation from someone who doesn’t know your work.
No matter where you are in your career. Whether you’re looking for a job, or just trying to stay current, having several professional recommendations and at least three people who would be willing to act as references is a must have. Start your networking efforts today to build your professional recommendations beyond your immediate supervisor and friends. As part of your networking efforts, agree to be a reference for key contacts and ask them if they would kindly do the same.