Make the Most of your References


By Sharon Graham.

Are you like me? I’m frequently asked to provide references for colleagues, and I am always happy to do so – especially when I can say something meaningful about how they have enriched my life, career, or business.

Perhaps you also share some of my biggest frustrations. Often, I have to decline the request to be a referee because I don’t know the person well enough. When I do endorse someone I know wholeheartedly, I seldom learn the outcome of my support.


ref·e·ree n. A person who gives you a reference. For example, someone who knows you and who is willing to describe and, ideally, praise you when you are applying for a job.

When you treat your referees well, they are your best representatives. When you want to ask someone to speak or write on your behalf, consider what you have done to nurture the relationship. To be effective, you can’t just ask for references on the spur of the moment. It takes time to cultivate a deep, mutually respectful relationship between professionals.

Here are some strategies to keep in mind for gathering – and keeping – your referees.


Many people in your network might be pleased to speak to potential employers on your behalf, but you need to be careful about whom to select. Your referee holds the power to make or break an opportunity for you. One questionable reference can eliminate you from the running.

Approach only those you believe will be the most articulate, and supportive of your skills and accomplishments. Consider superiors, clients, team members, colleagues, and direct reports from your working world.

Don’t be afraid to expand your support group of respected professionals to include those who you believe can write a letter extolling your virtues. Reference letters can be included in your presentation portfolio when you meet with employers.

Don’t assume that your previous employer will provide a positive, in-depth reference on your behalf. In the past, employers may have automatically provided recruiters with subjective responses to a list of questions. These days, many companies are sensitive to human rights issues. To avoid any ethical or legal concerns, they typically will only provide your basic record of employment – dates and job titles. So, it is crucial that you maintain strong connections with colleagues from your past in order to provide their names to recruiters.

Select high-quality business referees who can provide a strong cross-section of information to the reference checker. You want people who can provide tangible examples of the work you have done and the results you produced. Choose people who can give a sincere, considerate, and favourable character reference.


Prepare your referees well in advance by building a reciprocal “give and take” relationship. During the course of your career, think about them often. Consider how you can help your referees rather than how they can help you.

The best way to build a strong foundation for future referrals is to give before you get:

  • Take your referee out for a coffee and “on you” from time to time. This will give you a chance to chat about business and get to know each other better.
  • If you read an interesting business article or book that you believe your colleague will like, forward it along.
  • If you find out about an award or accolade that your colleague received, give a congratulatory call, genuinely ask about the details of the achievement, and pass the wonderful news along.
  • When you receive an unsolicited endorsement or referral, immediately thank your supporter.


When you are ready to ask for a reference, be sincere. Let your contact know that you are asking them because they know you and your performance, and – most of all – that you respect them immensely.

Your support group of references will have different strengths. Some will be very effective articulating your value to potential employers in a phone call. Others might prefer to write something.

Some of your referees may want to offer their support, but may not be as refined as you would like them to be. In these cases, you might want to ask for LinkedIn recommendations, or for some brief quotes to use as testimonials in you career search documents.

Demonstrate your appreciation of their time. You can even offer to write a draft for them to edit – saving time while also ensuring the content you want is addressed.

Alert your referees when you believe they may be contacted. If the referee is not comfortable or has any reservations about providing a particular reference, thank them and find another referee.

Prepare your referees well for the call. Give them a copy of the job posting and some details about the role. Provide details or topics to help them answer in the best possible way. Discuss competencies that you feel are most required for the position. Remind them about past achievements and successful projects that you worked on together. If you have already had an interview, discuss points you would like your referee to emphasize. All the while, express your appreciation for their time.


When you have received the type of recognition and support that may make – or has made – a contribution to your career, it is crucial to demonstrate that you really appreciate everything your referees have done for you.

Follow up! The most frustrating thing for someone that has made the time and effort to provide a recommendation is never hearing how things went. Whether you get that dream role or not, be sure to get in touch as soon as possible. When you determine they will be a strong referee for you, then keep them in the loop. Let them know the value and results of their involvement.

Send an email right away, talking about what a help they were. Give them a specific example of how their support helped you. Then, create and mail (or hand deliver) a hand-written note for that personal touch. Once you know more, touch base again with an update.

There are many ways to thank your referees formally. Provide your colleague with a great LinkedIn recommendation, or offer to provide similar assistance for them at any time in the future. Offer other kinds of support such as referring your referee to other like-minded colleagues.

Always try to give more than you get; however, expensive gifts are absolutely NOT recommended. Think about how you would feel if you gave a sincere recommendation and then received something extravagant. Your colleague might feel that it is quite unethical to receive compensation for saying something that they would have said anyway.  Your message would somehow make them feel like they were “bought” rather than just being sincere about your strengths.

If you have other ideas on this topic, please share them with me.

  • How do you attract and nurture well-qualified referees?
  • Have you tried other approaches that work particularly well?
  • What is your opinion on how best to express your appreciation?

Great referees are created over time. When it comes to your overall career success, positive endorsements will take you a long way.

Sharon Graham is CANADA’S CAREER STRATEGIST and author of the top-selling BEST CANADIAN RESUMES SERIES. Founder and executive director of CAREER PROFESSIONALS OF CANADA, Sharon is committed to setting the standard for excellence in the industry. A leading authority on resume, interview, employment and career transition, Sharon provides career practitioners with tools and resources to enable them to provide exemplary services to Canadians.

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