Referees and where to find them

Catherine Alexander, careers adviser here at the Careers Service, shares top tips for choosing your application referees

‘Referees on request’ – great application procrastination: so easy to pop on the end of an application, but eventually you’ll have to actually come up with some referees! Who to ask, what will they say, can you control them…? Whether you’re applying for a job, postgraduate course or academic reference, the principles are similar…

Who should you ask for a reference?

In a job already? – it is normal, and sometimes requested, that one reference is from your most recent employer. You can ask that they aren’t contacted until at, or after, job offer stage, as they may not know you’re looking for a new job. If you’re a finalist, you may not be able to put your last employer if you haven’t had one yet! Your DoS is usually willing to be one reference, but be aware they’re probably writing quite a few at a busy time of year, so they may need chasing.

Try to find someone you’ve worked for in an internship, work experience or voluntary role who can talk about your skills. A good referee is someone who can talk about you in relation to the skills and experience you need for the job or course you’re going for, or at least transferable skills that are relevant – e.g. if you’re applying to teach, you need someone who can talk about your ability to communicate in an engaging understandable way, rather than your ability to write essays. For postgraduate courses they are interested in your capacity to cope with the course, so academic references are best.

Be nice to your referees!

Be respectful of referees and always ask them if they’re happy to give you a reference.  They’re more likely to write a good one if it hasn’t come out of the blue. It can be awkward to keep going back to your referees to ask permission, especially if you know they’re really busy. It’s a good idea to let them know that you will be applying for a number of jobs over the coming months and get permission to use a few people as and when you need them. If they want to they can write something in advance and tweak it for specific roles when the requests come in.  This is especially true of academic referees, as demands for references often come in at pressure points during term-time, when they’re run off their feet.

Make it easy for them, too

You should make is as easy as you can for busy referees. Send them the job description or remind them of your key achievements – ‘here are some of my projects that I think are relevant, please feel free to edit or ignore but I hope this will save you time when writing my reference’.

How much weight do employers place on references?

References for academic jobs may well be read and form part of the assessment before a job offer. Similarly, those for postgraduate courses are often an important part of the selection process. References for jobs in other industries are often only read after a job offer. If your application is fantastic and the interview went well, it is unlikely that a subsequent offer would be withdrawn or reconsidered, unless the reference mentioned areas of deep concern. You don’t need to use valuable space on your CV with full names, addresses and relationship to your referee unless it’s specifically requested at this stage.

How much control do you have over what your references say about you?

Not a lot! The only thing you do have control over is your medical details. If you have a disability or illness, your referee cannot mention it without your permission. They don’t always know this though, so it’s worth having a chat about it. You can ask them not to mention it at all, though you might want them to say something positive e.g. ‘As reasonable adjustments were made for Caroline’s dyslexia she met the challenges of a heavy degree workload without missing a deadline’. Otherwise you probably won’t know what a referee says unless they choose to share it with you.

‘A truly glowing job reference will speak about you as a person, how well you fitted the team, what a pleasure it was to work with you…’ 

What does a good reference look like?

The best references are tailored to the job you’re going for. It takes time and effort to really do this well, so always ask potential referees well in advance if they’re happy to do this for you. Send them the job description with the relevant skills section handily highlighted. Make it easy for them to do you justice. They should mention the context that they know you in and therefore what working capacity they can talk about. Your DoS can talk about your academic ability, work ethic, transferable skills from your degree etc, but they can’t talk about the creativity of your ideas when marketing a student society. Ideally a referee will give examples demonstrating the skills and abilities they believe you have.

A truly glowing job reference will speak about you as a person, how well you fitted the team, what a pleasure it was to work with you and how, given half a chance, they’d either keep you or have you back to work with them in a heartbeat. So, be that person in every work experience or job you have. And always thank them afterwards – particularly if you got the job!

Standard references?

Some of the large corporate firms have a policy of standard, non-personal references only.  These are essentially the facts of your employment: ‘Cindy has worked here from January 2017 to 19 March when her fixed term contract ended. She had 6 days off sick.’

Contrary to popular belief, employers can give you a bad reference as long as it’s factual rather than just that they didn’t like you. So, if you were fired for spending too much time sorting your personal life on social media, they can say so. However, most don’t do this, opting to give a standard reference instead. If one of your references is likely to be factual only, you may choose to have a personal character reference as well. Another reason to pick a referee that knows you well and to give them time to write that glowing reference!

For more on referees, see page 22 of our CVs & Applications Book


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