Choosing your referees might not seem like a vital part of applying for a new role but you would be surprised just how important it is. I always recommend listing two or three referees even if you are not asked to provide any in the application process. Potential employers always like to know who you would use and if they know and respect the people you have suggested, even better! You need to use referees that have current, relevant experience of working with you closely. Be sure to choose referees who can comment honestly and hopefully positively about your capabilities.
If your current employer is aware you are looking for a new role and is encouraging of that move, include them. Be careful they are supportive, there are cases of employers giving bad references, so you don’t leave them! If your current employer doesn’t know that you are looking to leave, then absolutely don’t list them as a referee.
Who you leave out is almost as important as who you include. Leaving out past employers can leave an impression that you left that position under a cloud or that previous bosses mightn’t have good things to say about you. If you have left a role under unfavourable circumstances, see if there is someone in the organisation that would speak highly of you or a former colleague that was supportive of you.
Omitting obvious referees for one role is ok but if you don’t list any previous employers, it will give the impression that you might be the problem and you will have a hard time getting recruiters or prospective employers to change that impression.
Personal referees are only ok if you don’t have much work experience and don’t have relevant people that can speak to their experience of working with you. Remember recruiters and prospective employers want to know what you are like as an employee not just confirmation you are a nice person.
If you work for yourself, use good clients or suppliers that have an ongoing current working relationship with you.
When listing referees on your CV or in your cover letter make sure you include how they know you. Use a short sentence like, ‘I worked as a direct report to X at XZY organisation from 2010 to 2017.’ This gives the reader some context especially if they don’t already know the referee.
Make sure you check that people are happy to be a referee for you. You don’t need to let them know every time you apply for a role but if you are actively in the market, give them a heads up that they might get a call. If someone tells you they are going to call your referees, then I recommend calling them in advance to let them know to expect the call and give them some context.
You don’t need to give contact details for your referees unless asked for them. Having a line like ‘Referees contact details will be provided on request’ is totally acceptable. BUT be aware if you do list someone, there is always the potential that they may be contacted without warning you, hence they should be aware you are in the market. You also need to be aware that potential employers could do “unofficial reference checks”, if they know someone who knows you or has worked with you, they might call them for their opinion. For that reason, being upfront about anything that might be problematic is essential. If they hear something negative from someone else before you tell them they will cross you off the list straight away.
Think about the role you are applying for when you pick your referees and change them depending on the role/ industry you are looking at. Using a referee who knows the organisation or industry you are looking to move into will be useful, especially if you are looking at making a significant change. Having someone who can confidently say they believe you will make the transition will add weight to your compelling argument that you think you can do it.
Lastly don’t overwhelm the reader. Listing 10 people who could comment on every aspect of you and your career is unnecessary. Pick the people who know your work the most. If the interviewer wants to speak to someone about something specific, they will ask you for additional referees who can comment on that facet