Common questions about compiling a list of references

One of the last things many job seekers do prior to submitting a resume is tack on the perfunctory “References Available Upon Request” at the bottom of the document. Most don’t give the statement a second thought and include it more out of habit than anything else. But the truth is that this short sentence plays a much greater part in your chances of landing the position you seek than you might realize. Many companies are diligent about checking references.

Following are some common questions and answers to help you pass the test if a prospective employer takes you up on your offer to provide a list of references.

Do employers really conduct reference checks?

Yes. Though not all companies are so thorough when selecting new employees, most will take the time to contact at least a few of your references. And the likelihood of a hiring manager wanting to speak to people who can vouch for your skills, experience and quality of work increases as you apply for higher-level positions. Submitting a hastily compiled list of individuals who do not know your professional qualifications well — or, worse, not providing any references at all — could cost you your shot at the job.

Who should I include on my list of references?

In general, hiring managers want to speak with people you have worked closely with in the past. That includes immediate supervisors and colleagues. The best references are those people with whom you collaborated frequently or for long periods of time. So, although you may have communicated with the CIO on occasion, he probably knows little about your day-to-day responsibilities and performance, making him a poor choice.

When selecting a reference, also make sure the person will portray you in a positive light. If you have any concern about the comments the individual might offer, it’s best to leave him off the list. Touch base with those you’d like to serve as references before giving their names and contact information to a prospective employer, to make sure they are comfortable serving this role. Also provide references with a copy of your resume, a few key points that you’d like them to convey and an idea of the types of positions you are pursuing.

Can I include my friends or family?

Most hiring managers feel that relatives and personal acquaintances provide little value when it comes to reference-checking because it’s unlikely that these contacts will provide an objective assessment of your professional abilities.

How many references should I list?

Three to five references is usually adequate.

How should I present my list of references to employers?

List your references on a separate sheet of paper that has a similar format as your resume. It should include each person’s full name, current company and title, telephone number and e-mail address. Also provide a brief description of your relationship to the individual (“Supervisor at XYZ Co. from 1999-2001”) as well as a short statement explaining why you included him (“Mr. Smith and I worked closely on a number of critical network security upgrades. He can attest to my knowledge of virus-detection software, attention to detail and ability to complete tasks on time.”).

What if a prospective employer wants to speak to my current supervisor, who doesn’t yet know I’m planning to leave the company?

Most hiring managers will respect your wish to keep your job search secret. But the prospective employer might insist in some cases, especially if you do not have a well-developed work history. If you find yourself in this predicament, offer to provide the hiring manager with the name and contact information of a current colleague instead. Just be sure the reference will be discreet about your request.

What if the prospective employer has a hard time reaching my references?

It’s up to you to ensure that prospective employers can gain access to your references. Hiring managers should not have to chase down your contacts. Therefore, it is vital that you ensure not only that you have each person’s current contact information but also that he will be available to speak on your behalf. Also impress upon your references the importance of responding promptly to people who contact them to learn more about you. Do your part by giving your contacts a heads-up that you are interviewing and they may get a call from the hiring manager.

Though often an afterthought, your employment references may play a key role in the success of your next job search. After all, the information a reference shares could prompt a hiring manager to extend you the job offer — or cross you off the list of potential candidates. So, take some time to carefully select the individuals you want to direct prospective employers to, and make sure “References Available Upon Request” is more than an empty statement.

— Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe and offers online job search services at this Web site.