Originally Published: Wednesday, 9 May 2001 Author: Maninder Bali
Published to: interact_articles_jobs_skills/Linux Job Skills Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

On the Importance of Good References

Manider Bali reminds us of the importance of references in this jobs article. Care and feeding of references is of crucial importance, especially as you advance in your chosen career.

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In Richard Nelson's employment bible "What Color Is Your Parachute?" (Ten Speed Press, 1998) he writes: "experts now estimate that one-third to one-half of all job hunters lie on their resumes. Now, if you were an employer, how much faith would you put in a piece of paper where you know there are lies on one-third to one-half of them? Not much". This is why a good job reference can dramatically increase your chance of moving from a "prospective" candidate to "the employee" and employer has been looking for. Despite this importance keeping a good reference base is not the first thing on the list for most of us in this busy world, yet it should be.

The importance of references increases the further you move upwards in your career. When asked by the author how important a role job references play for a senior candidate, Mr. Sabeer Bhatia, the founder of world-renowned email service Hotmail.com, said "For high level positions - VP and above- references play the most important role in the selection of the candidate".

Many people take references for granted, but a job reference itself is not a guarantee of a good job reference! Even if the interview went well, you're likely to miss out on the job opportunity if you receive a less than glowing recommendation. So, how does a job candidate identify, approach and maintain outstanding references? The first step is to be aware of what kind of references you may be asked to provide.

The Types of Reference

Most job applications ask for one of three types of reference: a personal or character reference, an academic reference, and most commonly a work or professional reference.

Personal References

When a personal or character reference is asked for an employer is interested in responsible people who know you and can vouch for your good sense. Obviously it is not a good idea to give your mother, father, cousin, sister or aunt as a personal reference. This looks silly and is not professional. Of course your family are going to think you are wonderful! A mentor, minister or other respected peer or advisor could provide a strong character or personal reference.

Typically personal and character references should have known you for at least one year prior to your using them on a standard job application.

A personal reference would obviously not be in a position to comment on your professional skills and capabilities and should never be listed unless asked for. Basically, a personal reference is someone who is not related to you and has not worked with you.

The Academic Reference

When employers ask for an academic reference they are looking for confirmation of learned experience, learning style or learning ability. Obviously, an academic reference could be a college professor or some other teacher under whose guidance you trained or learned a certain skill.

The Professional Reference

For all those of you out there who opted for those valuable years of work experience instead of pursuing professional education, give yourselves a pat on the back, for Mr. Bhatia, the pioneer of free emails firmly values "work experience and demonstrated ability over educational qualifications", and he is not alone. The most common and most valuable kind of reference you can have is a work or professional reference, they tell the employer directly about what kind of an employee to expect.

Typically a professional reference is somebody who was your employer, overseer or supervisor, while a work reference is a peer or co-worker, although these terms are sometimes blurred. (If you are not sure what the employer is looking for, simply ask.)

The best people to stick to and recall when in need of references are co-workers who worked closely with you as an individual, or even co-workers in other departments who are fond of you or admired your work. In addition, supervisors who have helped you learn and grow make great candidates for professional references.

On the other hand, it is not advisable to use supervisors or bosses who did not give you good reviews or who were overly critical of you as an individual. It is also not wise to use co-workers who were friendly, but did not know you long enough to give a complete reference. You may find yourself surprised about what good and bad things different people will say about you behind your back, especially in something as important as this. To be sure, it is always a good idea to approach your potential reference candidate before you list them on a resume or job application.

Approaching a Reference

The most common question that comes to the minds of many people is probably "How do I go up and ask someone if they would be a reference for me"? Believe me, this is not the easiest task; in fact, sometimes people will reject you! You may be turned down for a variety of reasons; it's not something to take personally. For instance, many people may become rather shy and apprehensive when asked to give a work reference. Why? The reason is unclear; the responsibility is a possible turn off. Other individuals may have legal concerns. If somebody does turn down your request, be pleased. It sure is lucky you didn't just list them without any warning!


Don't overlook the importance of and the care and feeding of references, especially professional references. Common sense works well when it comes to references. Always remember to ask politely and know the person long enough before asking for the reference. Make sure you have good contact information and keep it updated, as people move and phone numbers change. A nice suggestion is to take the reference out for coffee and bring up the subject or at least approach it in a positive and flattering way. Usually, people are receptive. If the person is not receptive, it's not a good idea to push. Just drop the idea and find another reference that is more upbeat and positive about it. It has to feel right. Keep in close contact with the reference and reward them in small ways (cards, meeting for coffee, calling to say hello, etc.).

Keeping good references also means keeping good friends, and in the world of work we all need good friends sooner or later.

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