The Art of Cultivating Professional References: Positioning Former Supervisors, Colleagues & Other Associates to Help You Get Hired!

As a former Student Affairs professional and current University Professor, I am frequently asked to serve as a professional reference by former employees and students. Over the last two decades, I have learned what it takes to best communicate what employers want to hear before extending a job offer to a candidate or agreeing  to a candidate’s desired starting salary. I’ve also witnessed the pitfalls that often arise when a candidate doesn’t adequately prepare their professional references to speak positively on their behalf — a costly mistake, to be sure. In recent years, I adapted these insights to serve the clients I coach as they manage the various facets of their job searches. It was out of the hundreds of coaching conversations that I have had over the years that The CONNECT Model came into being:

Consider who to approach about serving as a professional reference in relation to the specific job/s you are applying for

Depending on the position, it may be advantageous to extend beyond the typical references such as past supervisors and also include former clients who held you in high esteem, leaders within non-profit organizations who have seen evidence of your work ethic or character in volunteer settings or colleagues who know people at the company you are applying to work for.

Organize yourself before approaching possible references

Your professional references should get to serve as your professional references, without feeling called to assist you as career coach, resume writer or personal assistant. Take a few minutes to think through the last time you talked or interacted with each person you are considering approaching and then think through what they might need to know about you now to serve as a positive and current reference for you.

Never tell after listing someone as a reference, always ask before doing so I have experienced my share of blind reference checks where I only learn that someone listed me as a reference upon receiving the call for the reference check. Not good — for me, the employer or the candidate. Something else to consider, the person you would like to have serve as a professional reference may have changed jobs themselves and therefore their contact information may have also changed. When a potential employer is conducting a reference check, you want to avoid their call resulting in the discovery that you listed a significantly outdated contact.

Narrow down the information your references need to help you get hired

At minimum, provide your references with the following: A copy of your most current resume, a copy of the cover letter and/or application you are submitting for the job, a few bullets about why you are excited about the particular position you are applying for, the timeline for the selection process and your current contact information in case they have questions. On a related note, because hiring processes can be incredibly expensive for companies, some companies are now conducting reference checks before inviting candidates to interview — so it is important that you position your professional references with the information they need, early in your job search process.

Expect and accept advice

Connecting with potential references needn’t be limited to asking “Can I use you as a reference?” Make yourself available to your potential references when you first begin a new job search. Who knows, they may be aware of openings or future openings you might be perfect for and better yet — that they might be able to help you secure them.

On the flip side, if there was a performance issue while you worked with them or a style difference that got in the way of you working together effectively, you might want to have a candid conversation with them acknowledging your growth since leaving the position and acknowledging your gratitude for all that you learned while in that position. It takes some courage, but I also recommend asking anyone you hope to have serve as a reference the following question: “Is there anything that you can think of, from our time working together, that would position you to give me anything other than a positive reference?”  Then take a deep breath, allow for silence while they consider the question and await their response. If they say yes, ask for a specific example of what comes to mind and see if you can mitigate it. Depending on how the conversation unfolds, reassess whether or not to list them as a reference. While this could result in an uncomfortable conversation, better that you have it with them than they have it with a potential employer.

Communicate status

Let your references know how the selection process is unfolding in brief, bulleted emails or quick voicemails. If you were invited for an interview or have been informed that you are now a finalist, let them know. You may also want to let them know what you talked about during your interview/s so that they can get a sense of the kinds of questions they might be asked. I’ve personally gone so far as asking certain references to cover certain aspects of my character, work ethic or experience so that when pieced together, the two or three calls the potential employer made to my references painted a multi-faceted picture of the unique contribution I was positioned to make. I got the job and the salary I hoped for!

Thank them, thank them, thank them

I recommend sending a handwritten card via snail mail thanking anyone who served as a professional reference for you at the following intersections of your job search: When you are offered a job or accepted a job offer, when you pull your application from a position you are no longer interested in and when you are released from a search process by a potential employer. It is particularly well received and remembered, when you send a card a few months in on a new job acknowledging your reference for helping you secure the position and sharing a few things that you enjoy about your new role.

In closing, cultivating professional references is something you invest in on an on-going basis, not simply when you are in the midst of a job search. It is also something that you invest in with a variety of people, not just one or two. Given some job searches can last longer than initially anticipated, it’s a good idea to have several possible references, who are current on your most recent experience, so that you don’t rely on the same few people over and over again, possibly burning them out and perhaps burning bridges in the process.

I invite you to take a few minutes today to reach out and acknowledge someone who has made a difference in your life. Share how your life has unfolded since you last saw or spoke to one another, see if you can stay connected more easily now using one of the many social networking sites available, and express your desire to stay better connected in the future. Who knows, the few minutes invested in reconnecting with someone today might just lead to your next job opportunity!

Wendy L. Yost, the Owner of More is Available Coaching & Consulting,, partners with individuals and organizations to assist them in growing through transitions and generating desired change. With a Master’s Degree in Leadership and several coaching and spiritual counseling certifications, she possesses nearly two decades of experience helping people achieve desired results faster and with greater ease and enjoyment. Wendy passionately blends her professional expertise with her interest in practical spirituality to lend perspective when clients are going through particularly challenging times. Wendy also delights in teaching classes in Leadership, Marketing and Entrepreneurialism at California State University, Northridge.

As published in 101 Great Ways to Enhance Your Career by Michelle A. Riklan & David Riklan |

To listen to a Bonus Audio Program that further explores this and other Career Success topics, visit: and scroll to Bonus #8 (a 40 minute MP3 file).