Your job references aren’t just warm bodies who can verify that you’re “the best employee ever, and a totally great fit for [insert job here].” If done thoughtfully, your references can help you create a specific “hire me because I have these skills” narrative, or support the one you’ve set up in your cover letter, resume, and interview. The groundwork for these references should be done ahead of time, before you even think about applying for a job. That way, they’re ready to go when you need them—and won’t be taken by surprise when someone calls them for a reference.
So who should be included on your list of professional references?
Your current boss
This is complicated if you’re looking for jobs on the down-low, but if it’s an open concept that you’re leaving your current job and looking for a new one, your current manager is the best bet. He or she knows you as you are right now and can speak to recent accomplishments. Before you offer up your current boss, though, it’s important to know roughly what they’ll say. If there are any concerns or uneasiness about that, then leave them off the list.
Your current colleagues
This can be a great alternative if you don’t want your current boss to know you’re actively seeking another job. A trusted colleague (one who can keep a secret) who works closely with you can be an excellent reference to have, since they know you in a day-to-day professional capacity. Ask him or her to talk about specific projects and what you’re like as a team member.
Your former supervisor
An old boss can be useful because they can give the hiring manager a sense of what you’re like as an employee, but the risk here is that their professional information about you may be a little out of date. And as with referring your current boss, it’s important to know roughly what they’re going to say. If you think they might want to talk about some of your less-than-stellar moments, then think twice about including them.
Your teachers or advisors
This isn’t all that helpful if you’ve been in the workforce for a while, but if you’re a recent grad or just starting out, professors or advisors can tell the company about your skills and personality.
Once you’ve decided who your go-to references are for this job application, be sure to give them a heads-up that they may be contacted. Also give them information about the job itself and what you’re hoping they’ll emphasize in their chat with the new company. There’s only so much you can stage-manage what this person will say, but giving them a template of sorts helps them prepare and find the most useful information to share about you. It takes some of the onus off of them to figure out what they’re supposed to talk about.
It’s also important to make sure your references are targeted to the job you want. If you’re applying for a marketing job, your old boss at your summer restaurant job might not be the most useful person to help you get this new gig. The more thought and preparation you put into your reference list, the better and more focused information they’ll be able to provide.