How to Choose the Best List of References

Thoughtful businesswoman looking at computer screen in office.

Thoughtful businesswoman looking at computer screen in office.Lea WolfingerBy Lea Wolfinger, Senior Director, Ashton Tweed

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As an executive recruiter with over 15 years of experience, I have done many reference calls on the behalf of client companies. From this exposure, I’ve learned whom clients are looking to hear from and what they are hoping to hear during each call. Although choosing your references is a rather simple task, don’t overlook this crucial step in the hiring process. Here are some tips to keep in mind when compiling your list of contacts:


Choose who knows you best.

You want to choose references who will give you a great recommendation. These references should know you, your work ethic, and your accomplishments well. Your references don’t necessarily have to be your former bosses, although they are a good option. If your former supervisor did not work closely with you, don’t feel pressured to list him or her. Instead, list former colleagues, mentors, customers, etc. Even someone you have personally supervised who knows your leadership style is acceptable.


Keep the list professional.

Avoid listing family members or friends. These people know you on a personal basis, not a professional basis, which is what employers are interested in. You want to list people who are close with you on a professional level, so work friends are the better choice.


Be strategic for each job.

Just as you would adjust your résumé for each job application, make sure to adjust your references. If you are applying for a management position, make sure your references are familiar with your managing skills. You should try to match your references with the job you are applying for so that they can relay relevant information when contacted.


Try to stay recent.

It is not a good sign to employers if you list a boss from several years ago as a reference and no one more recent. If you decide to list older references, make sure it’s someone who you’ve stayed in touch with and make sure you also list some more recent contacts. If you left your last company on bad terms, only add references who understand why you left and will say positive things about your performance. Otherwise, don’t list them at all, and skip to the next most recent job.


Don’t worry about your current boss.

If you are currently employed, don’t worry about a potential employer or recruiter contacting your current boss. This person does not need to be listed in your references and his/her absence will not arouse suspicion. Most realize that contacting your boss would jeopardize your job. However, it is okay to ask them specifically not to contact your current company. They’ll understand why their discretion is necessary.

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