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Reference Protocol

Q: After 6 years in my current position, I've decided it's time for a career move and a new challenge.  I have a good working relationship with my manager and peers, and I've consistently had excellent performance appraisals.  However, I don't want to tip off my boss that I'm looking before I have an offer in hand.  Who, then, should I approach for references?

In the last few years, I've been active in the Boy Scouts and my church and have developed close working relationships with several other committed volunteers.  Therefore, my questions to you about references are:

  • Can I use these non-work people as references?

  • Should I put their names at the end of my resume?

  • Should I obtain letters of recommendation from them?

  • What's the best way to ask people if they will be a reference?

While these questions don't seem complicated compared to many you receive, I'm sure I'm not the only person who is uninformed about reference protocol.

A: You're right.  Confusion about references is common among job seekers.  Here are some guidelines for their effective use.

While many people assume work references are the best (or only) ones to get, this isn't necessarily true.  Many large companies have policies to divulge only job title and length of service.  For job seekers who have left positions under less than ideal circumstances, this is good news.  But for people like you with excellent work records and relationships, it poses a problem.

Discreetly find out from your managers or HR department whether your company has such a policy.  If it doesn't, use respected colleagues as references who will keep your job hunt secret.  If it does, you will have to rely on people outside your company, who are free to discuss your work. 

Your fellow volunteers in the Boy Scouts and your church are excellent additions to your reference pool.  They have seen your work and commitment over several years and should be delighted to discuss your activities with a potential employer.  An added advantage is using them as references at the outset of your job search, an option you don't usually have with your current manager.

Other sources of recommendations include neighbors, your banker or attorney, an old friend, minister and even former professors/teachers (if you've kept in contact).  As you can see, there are a variety of individuals who can serve in this role.

There's no need to list references on your resume.  They take valuable space and, unless they are universally well known and respected, their names are meaningless to potential employers.

Official letters of recommendation can be useful in long distance moves, but usually aren't necessary.  In fact, writing a general letter is difficult for your reference and not particularly effective for you, because it is unlikely to cover the specific points a potential employer may want to discuss. Calls and email responses are better.

Of course, you must ask before you give names as references.  Fortunately, most people will consider your request a compliment.  Usually the few who might be uncomfortable will diplomatically refuse. 

The tricky part of communicating with references comes after they agree to recommend you.  For them to be of greatest benefit, you’ll need to alert them about the specific areas they will probably be discussing with your potential employer. If you believe you are one of the top candidates for the position, contact your references to explain the experience, skills, and personality traits your perspective manager is looking for. With this information, they can tailor their comments to highlight your most important attributes.  

When you have accepted your new position, be sure to thank them for their help by phone or in writing. They’ll want to know their efforts on your part produced the desired result.

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