Hand Filling Application For EmploymentHas it ever happened to you: you get called out of the blue for a job reference? There’s nothing worse than getting caught flat-footed trying to come up with something positive to say about a person. That doesn’t mean you can’t– it just means you’re likely to draw a blank when put on the spot, and that could hurt a person’s chances of getting hired.

But it’s not your fault. The person who listed you as a reference should have asked you in advance. Peter K. Studner, author of Super Job Search IV: The Complete Manual for Job Seekers & Career Changers, suggests going one step further: job seekers should meet with their references in advance.

“When a potential employer checks your references, it’s because they’re serious about hiring you,” says Studner. “And especially in today’s competitive market, a single lukewarm reference can kill your candidacy. The good news is, by choosing your references thoughtfully and talking with them before giving out their contact information, you can guide the process in your favor.”

Studner is a master career counselor whose outplacement firm has helped over 27,000 people transition from one job to the next. Here, Studner shares four things to do when organizing your references:

1. Choose Your References Carefully

Your best references will support claims you’ve made about your achievements, skills, and experience. Ideally, they’ll be people who have worked closely with you in the past. Consider former managers and supervisors. If you’ve been in a managerial position yourself, you might also want to include a few people you’ve supervised.

2. Think About How Each Reference Can Best Support You

While most references will give you a good-to-excellent report, some might inadvertently include a hint that your previous work was less than standard or that the circumstances of your leaving were not good. For instance, if a reference says that “Cameron is a high achiever and doesn’t suffer fools,” the interviewer may think, Cameron is too picky and demanding to get along with the team.

“Put some thought into what you’d like each reference to say about you,” Studner recommends. “Think about the specific skills and accomplishments you’d like them to emphasize. Keep in mind that this information might vary from person to person, and even from potential job to potential job.”

3. Set Up a Time to Meet…

Now it’s time to discuss your job search, career goals, and resume with your references.

“Whenever possible, your reference meetings should be face-to-face,” Studner says. “If distance is prohibitive, though, consider a video conference or phone call. However you meet, make sure your references have a copy of your resume.”

4. …and Discuss the Hard Questions

When potential employers call your references, it’s unlikely that the employer will simply say, “So, tell me about Taylor.” Ergo, your references will probably have to go beyond the script you’ve given them about your skills and accomplishments.

To guide the discussion, here are 13 common questions potential employers might ask your references:

  • “How did you know the candidate?”
  • “What were the circumstances of his leaving the company?”
  • “Was she on any performance improvement plan? How did she do?”
  • “What are his strong points?”
  • “In what areas does she need improvement?”
  • “Would you hire him again?”
  • “What were her greatest achievements at the company?”
  • “Who else supervised him?” (Be prepared; the interviewer may approach another supervisor, even if they are not on your list.)
  • “Did the candidate live up to your expectations?”
  • “How were her leadership skills?”
  • “Was he appreciated by his colleagues?”
  • “Was she reliable?”
  • “Anything else you can add about the candidate?”

That last question is potentially the most damaging. Your reference might go off-topic and start saying things you may not want them to say. Make sure your references are especially prepared to answer that question.

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