AWWA Articles

Reference roulette: how to make a winning choice

By Stuart Karasik, Ph.D.

As a baby boomer, I’m comfortable with the concept of working in one organization for a long time. However, I know many younger employees who regularly assess the job market for new opportunities.

Career ZoneA Gen X colleague and friend of mine recently asked me to provide a reference for him, after he spotted his newest “challenging and rewarding” job prospect. Being the nice guy that I am, I spent a few minutes chatting with him so that I could personalize my response. During our conversation he shared a key challenge he faces from applying for jobs on a regular basis -- who to ask for a reference?

This is a valid question. Whether you are an application veteran or novice, this is a critical decision. Ask the wrong person, and you could jeopardize your current position or provide the prospective manager a weak impression of you. Conversely, the right person can provide information that ensures the job offer comes your way.

Let’s review who may be the best choice for a reference.

Current supervisor/manager: First, consider the person to whom you directly report. Listing that person as a reference can be impactful, especially if you’ve been in your position for some time. It demonstrates you are confident in your level of performance and open and fair with your employer, showing a future employer you will bring these traits to future positions.  

Not listing your current supervisor or manager could cause a prospective employer to wonder if there is something you don’t want them to know. “Are they leaving because they are a poor performer, bored or they jump around a lot?”

You can address this concern in advance by working to develop an open and constructive relationship with your direct supervisor or manager. Communicate with them about your career goals so they are prepared for and supportive of your next move. An effective manager will not be offended by such a conversation. They want the best career path for their employees, whether it remain inside the organization or lead to the outside.

Most importantly, let your supervisor know ahead of time if you plan to use her or him as a reference. Explain why you chose to apply for the position and that you would appreciate his or her support by providing feedback. If you have a positive relationship, this can be a simple and positive conversation.

Co-workers: Do you have co-workers who you can trust and will respond professionally, positively and in a timely manner? Again, prepare them ahead of time by explaining what position you have applied for, where you are in the selection process, and why you think this is a good move for you.  

They may have the opportunity to provide feedback about your job responsibilities and duties, including projects and skills such as teamwork and organization. Suggest they focus on specific activities and outcomes.

Educators: Consider the professors, advisors and instructors you know from education and technical training programs you have completed. In today’s job market, education and training are key to establishing a foundation for work performance. Who better than an educator who you respect and admire to provide specific details about your skills and achievements?  

If you are currently in school, identify one professor with whom you can establish a formal relationship and ask if her or she would be willing to provide a future reference. If you are out of school, identify an educational mentor – an instructor, trainer or industry leader -- who you trust and has positively impacted your career.

Professional colleagues: In your current position, you likely have developed a professional network of colleagues who you rely on for advice, ideas and information. They may be in different departments, organizations or locations, but you regularly collaborate with them. You respect these professionals and know they are objectively familiar with your knowledge, skills and abilities. They may even have a connection with your prospective employer, making their reference even more impactful.

Volunteer contacts and friends: If you have volunteered at an organization, staff members there can provide unique insight into your personality and skills, as can long-standing friends. This also validates additional aspects of your interests and skills and demonstrates your “work-life balance.” Be careful not to introduce topics that are political or controversial.

When you talk to someone about being your reference, ask them if they have any reservations or concerns about doing so - don’t just assume they will say yes. Make sure they understand what position you are being considered for and what qualifications you offer so that their comments are relevant to the position.

Finally, ask them to notify you when they are contacted to provide a reference and thank them for supporting you. Taking the time and effort to decide on a winning choice for your reference is important and can pay huge dividends for your career.

Stuart Karasik spent most of his career in the human resources/personnel arena. He has a Ph.D. in education, a master’s in biology, and was the training program manager for the City of San Diego.