7 Ways to Prep Your References for a Potential Employer

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(Lance Cpl. Cory D. Polom/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

As a job seeker, you'll need to put together a list of professional references who can vouch for you to a prospective employer.

Your references should be individuals with whom you've worked closely. These can be your former subordinates, those who have managed you, people who have worked alongside you or who have interacted with you professionally as a client, vendor or board member.

References should also be informed and comfortable speaking about your work style, employment history, leadership ability and character, even though they may not be asked those specific questions. If this is your first job after the military, be sure to indicate that these references know you in a military context, so the employer isn't confused.

Once you've asked someone to serve as your professional reference, it's critical that you help prepare them for the call. Don't leave it to chance that they'll sing your praises. You might risk them torpedoing your chances by pointing out your flaws or remembering your past incorrectly.

Here are my steps for preparing your references to give you a glowing review:

1. Make Sure Your References Know They Are Your References.

Be sure to talk to your contacts and let them know you're listing them as references. Clarify whether they will be asked to speak as your supervisor, client, friend, peer or subordinate. Ask them specifically whether they will be comfortable giving you a positive reference.

If they hesitate or seem ambivalent, find someone else. You want references who will speak well about you.

2. Get Up-to-Date Contact Information.

Someone may have given you a glowing review, but if the hiring manager can't reach them, it's a lost opportunity. Be sure to ask what method of contact they prefer: office phone, cell phone or email.

3. Remind Them How Great You Are.

It may be that you worked with this person a few years ago, and they've forgotten your strengths or the exact dates you worked together. Remind them of details of your mutual work history, and even offer a story they could share if they are contacted.

4. Offer Keywords.

Another thing you don't want to leave to chance are the keywords or phrases the reference will use to describe you. Be specific with the words you'd prefer to be described with. While it would appear odd if each reference spoke like robots -- offering the exact same narrative -- it is important that they describe you in a way that fits your personal brand strategy

For instance, if you want to be known as collaborative, intuitive and caring, and they describe you as a productive contributor, patient and non-confrontational, it's not the same thing. Their words are in the right direction of your brand, but they paint a different picture.

5. Give Each Reference a Focus Area.

If your references talk about the same aspect of your workstyle or experience, you could be missing an opportunity to show breadth of knowledge or flexibility. Ask each one to cover a certain topic or aspect of your workstyle, leadership abilities, talents or expertise. Use the job description as a guide and then match the reference to the competencies the employer seeks.

6. Tell Them About the Employer.

Send your references the job description and a link to the company website in advance. This will help them formulate their answers to be responsive to the particular job. If you are asking them to be a reference for multiple jobs, be sure they understand your focus and goals, so they can speak more broadly about your career path.

7. Help Them Help You.

It might be awkward to write up a quick draft of what you would like your references to say about you, but everyone is busy and they will appreciate the assistance. Be sure to send them a copy of your current resume, and links to any online accounts (your LinkedIn, website, etc.) they might be asked about.

Remember that your references want to see you succeed. Help them help you by creating focus and intention with how they represent you and your skills and experience.

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