Professional references are important to applicants since it provides companies with impromptu feedback about the applicant from other people. A professional reference is basically a recommendation or review given by someone that has had worked with or knows the applicant in a business or job setting. People that can give trustworthy and legit professional references come from many different and unique backgrounds - anyone can give a reference or a recommendation as long as that person is not a family member or anyone close enough to the applicant that their references will be viewed as strongly biased or that person. There are so many different people that can give different references to an applicant, so how can you differentiate between those references to determine which ones pack the most punch and which ones are vague and are in fact detrimental to your cause when applying?
You have to first decide what the hiring party wants to see in a professional reference. Anybody can write a few lines of vague and uninspiring sentences praising the applicant as a “hard worker” or “very skilled” or “can be an asset on any company’s staff.” Companies want to see the more in-depth analysis of an applicant in recommendations given by other people. They want to see that you can do the job well, possessing all the necessary skills, and fit the work environment in the company well. Since there is bound to be many different kinds of references and recommendations, no company will be a perfect fit for a certain reference. Your mix of references will differ based on the positions’ that you are applying and its requirements.
The optimal professional reference will provide a very detailed analysis of an applicant’s strengths or weaknesses. The more detailed the description in a reference, the better. The person doesn’t have to be a certified expert or someone who has a lot of experience in the field to give such a detailed explanation. A convincing reference about an applicant’s expertise in SQL and Adobe, for example, can come from somebody that is a Head of Product that uses those two programs to design a noteworthy mobile app or somebody that is a freelance technical developer that has had a few months experience working with the programs independently. You want your reference to come from someone that knows your work very well rather than someone that knows that field you work in very well.
When it comes to determining which person will give a really good reference, decide if the person making the recommendation is comfortable writing a positive recommendation for you. Some people will have certain biases and choose people for recommendations based on their emotional connection or their strong yet unchecked/unverified belief that that person is best to write that recommendation. This usually leads to disappointment on the applicant, since they obviously weren’t prepared for such an outcome.
How can you avoid such a situation? Be prepared through doing “research” on prospective recommenders that you are considering asking for professional references. This “research” can come in many ways - we recommend using LinkedIn. Have a prospective reference write you a review of you on your LinkedIn profile while returning the favor. If you’re not sure or confident enough to contact them on LinkedIn, ask them directly through writing or through vocally, face-to-face, if they are confident they know you well enough to write a good, detailed reference. Involve them in the process of choosing your professional references - they would have been part of that process anyway if you just asked them blindly without context. If they are uneasy about their ability to write you a satisfactory review, move on - at least you now know for certain to not to use them as your professional reference.
Professional references should never be directly tampered with. There’s a reason why professional references exist - they want unbiased, unfiltered opinions about the applicant from people that have no obvious bias or connection to the applicant. Choosing professional references may seem like a lottery that you have no control over, but what you can do to provide yourself with more certainty that they will be well-informed to write you a good review would be to provide them with updated information about you. The more information they have, the more detailed they can be when referencing you. This information can come in the form of an updated resume detailing your most recent work whereabouts and/or the description of the company and the position that you are applying for. When they are also prepared can they become an applicant’s influential professional reference.
An applicant should always keep the prospective professional reference updated consistently - have a sit-down with them, like a coffee meeting or casual meetup, and discuss what you have been doing in the time period since you two last met or communicate. This informal meeting between the applicant and the prospective reference gives the reference more information about the applicant as a person in and out of the workforce, while providing the applicant with a decent idea whether they will be a solid advocate for him or her.
Lastly, professional references are technically doing you a favor when they influence companies’ perspectives of you when you’re applying through their review of you, so always thank them for their time and support.
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