Whether you’re looking for work or looking for new clients, people want to make sure that you are who you say you are and you’ll do what you say you’ll do. One way to assure those considering you or your services is to provide a list of references – satisfied customers or employers that can vouch for your character and skills. But even though this seems like a no-brainer, many people lose out because they choose the wrong people for references.

The wrong reference can make you look unprofessional, unethical and unprepared – and all of this can be done unintentionally from someone who is trying to help you. Yes, this has happened and I’ve seen it. Remember that these days most employers are doing their homework and checking references – ditto on the consumer side when working with a small business. So there’s a good chance the people you list will get called so you’ll want to make sure that these people will represent you well. So let’s start with how to choose the right people as references. Here are some tips:

  • Choose people that have positive things to say about you. This should be obvious but you’d be surprised at how many people mess this one up.
  • Only choose people that speak well. Avoid people that curse, have bad manners or communicate in way that would turn off a potential employer or client.
  • Choose someone that knows your work and can to speak it. Don’t list people that are close friends or family (unless you truly worked together in the trenches) because if that comes out, you’ll lose credibility. Instead, choose people that have worked with you and/or used your services and can attest to it.
  • If you’re working, don’t list anyone at your current employer that you don’t want aware of your job search. Imagine how you’d feel if someone called you saying they’d like to make an offer to one of your subordinates but were just checking references first.
  • If you know someone that knows the person who will be checking references, list them. An endorsement from someone we know and trust means much more than if it came from a complete stranger.
  • Don’t make up people or give false info. Some people do this so they can pad their lists to make it look like they have more references than they really do. Even if the person checking believes that the person has relocated, you look bad for not verifying you have the current contact info on an important list.

Now that you have your list of potential references, here’s what to do:

  • Ask the person if they’ll be a reference. So many people get burned because they didn’t ask the person before listing them. At best, the person is surprised and on the fly tries to think of something nice to say. At worst, the person gets angry because they were unaware you listed them.
  • If there’s any hesitancy by the other person, don’t list them. You want to list only your strongest references so when in doubt, leave them out.
  • Have a conversation with the person to refresh them about what you have to offer. Remind them of your successes, things that you overcame and any nice feedback they had given to you.
  • Put together a one-sheet to give the reference. This should be like a crib sheet on you (such as resume or list of services) plus notes about their experiences with working with you that they can use in the event they get a call. Even if they don’t have it handy, reading it once within a week or so of someone contacting them will dramatically improve the way they perform as a reference.

So these are my best reference tips in a nutshell. Do you have some tips? If so feel free to share the wealth by leaving a comment.

How A Bad Reference Can Harm You
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One thought on “How A Bad Reference Can Harm You

  • April 28, 2010 at 10:57 am

    I believe in references and power they have!! There is nothing more disturbing than getting a call and being unprepared to help out and refer the person that listed you!! I like the way you coached the process of developing a good reference!! It is imperative to know what people are going to say about you!! Great work!

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