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Good References Lead to Good Jobs

Kate Traynor

A well-written resume tells your potential employer that you have the right skills, but you also need good references to prove that you're the right candidate for the job.

Why are good references so important? Employers know that resumes aren't always truthful. So information from someone who can verify your ability, competence, and integrity helps a prospective employer judge how well you will fit into the organization. 

Former and current employers provide the most relevant information on you as an employee. But if you're just starting your career, you may need to use academic and character references to obtain the three recommendations required by many employers. 

Academic references can come from college professors who taught you skills important to your prospective employer. And don't overlook teaching assistants—they may know your abilities better than a professor, especially if they worked with you during lab projects or internships. 

A character reference could be an advisor, minister, or other professional familiar with your personality, ethics, and social skills. This kind of information is important to a potential employer who needs to know whether you're compatible with the established community of workers. 

Prospective employers may ask you for written letters of reference. The JobWeb, an online resource sponsored by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa., shows what reference writers need to do to compose effective letters. One excellent suggestion is that reference writers obtain a copy of the requester's resume so they can use it to prepare substantive recommendations. So have a copy of your resume with you when you ask someone to write your reference letter. 

It's a good idea to ask for written references only from people who would also say positive things about you over the telephone. In fact, some employers don't bother with reference letters. Candid conversations with people who know you can give a prospective employer more meaningful information than a letter would. 

Keep in touch with the people you use as references. If someone you list as a reference moves or changes jobs or titles, you need to know about it. A prospective employer who discovers that your references aren't where you said they are probably won't hire you. 

What will your references say about you over the telephone? You really don't know. 

According to Terra Dourlain of Rochester, Minn.-based Allison & Taylor Referencing Checking Inc., about half of the oral comments to prospective employers during reference checks are mediocre at best. If you suspect that telephone conversations between your references and prospective employers have cost you jobs, Dourlain suggests you consider paying a reference-checking firm to find out what your references really say about you. 

Maintaining a good relationship with your references can help you avoid this situation. Start by sending a written thank-you note to everyone who agrees to be a reference for you. A sample thank-you note and some well-written reference letters can be found on the Web page for a technical communications course at the University of Wisconsin. 

If you go to a lot of interviews, you don't need to alert your references to every call that they may receive. But if you're very serious about a particular job, it's a good idea to give your references some background information about the company before someone calls and catches them ill prepared. 

After you're hired, remember that your new colleagues will likely be the references you use for your next job. It's in your best interest to develop good work habits, resolve workplace conflicts quickly, and learn to be the type of employee anyone would recommend for hire.