Career Q&A: Preparing for the reference check process

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What is the best way to prepare for reference checks to make sure they strengthen my chances at getting an offer and not damage them?

This is a really good question and, unfortunately, many people have learned the hard way not to make assumptions or ignore the preparation that needs to go into the reference process. Even with a strong application and a successful interview, a poor or poorly prepared reference can absolutely affect your chance of getting a job offer! Here are some tips to help ensure your references are working for you – and not against you:

Choose and vet your references carefully – ideally tailoring them to the skills and experiences required for the job at hand, when possible. This requires having an honest conversation with your referees about their assessment of your strengths, weaknesses and what they would find important to share about their experience with you with a potential employer. If you do not feel comfortable or able to have this conversation with a potential referee, this is a clue to you that there are probably some good reasons you should not use them.

Prepare your references once you have landed the interview. Reference check calls should never come as a surprise for your referees and, if they are, it reflects poorly on your ability to organize yourself to your potential employer. Once you are confirmed for an interview, contact your referees to ask for their ability to give you a positive reference for the position and, if so, permission to use them. Find out the best way to contact them during this time period − there is nothing more frustrating for a potential employer than to try and complete the reference process when referees are on vacation! Provide referees with a copy of the job posting and your application. Make it even easier for them by asking them to speak to specific aspects of your experience that you feel are most relevant to the position.

Prepare your reference list for your interview by having a clean, separate document with your referees’ names, organizations and contact information to handover at your interview, if requested.

Follow up with your references and thank them. Whether you get the job or not, it is important to acknowledge your referees’ efforts on your behalf and let them know the outcome of the process. Keep in mind that having people able and willing to champion you in the job process is not a “given” you should simply expect from past employers and based solely on what you may need from them from time and time – it should also be about building reciprocity and respect in the relationship between you outside of the reference check process.

Nancy Ingram and Christa McMillin are co-founders and partners at Foot in the Door Consulting which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Together, they have over 30 years of experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector. They can be reached through

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