How to Be an Excellent Reference

Female executive using phone and computer at office
By Vicki Salemi

The next time an outstanding colleague on your team resigns or your fantastic mentor moves on to another role, think about how you can help them with testimonials. We often think about who will be our references and who can ultimately sing our praises to future employers, but we never think about how beneficial it is to pay it forward.

Many people think of a reference as an afterthought as they're completing employment applications and need to give three names that can serve as references. But if you take this proactive approach, there are several tactful ways you can be an excellent reference and help former colleagues advance their careers:1. Offer it up. As you keep in touch with colleagues who no longer work with you, offer to be their references. In turn, they'll probably offer the same to you, but the key is being proactive and extending a lending hand before they even ask. They may not reach out to capitalize on your kind offer for a while, and that's OK, too. At least they know your endorsement is available to them.

2. Check the rule book. Some companies have specific policies regarding how to give a reference. (They typically exist in order to avoid a lawsuit.) If a colleague includes your contact information on their employment application and you receive a phone call, you may only be able to state that you worked with that person. You may not be able to say anything above and beyond affirming your professional connection. If this is the case, you'll need to say something like: "I'm happy to be John's reference, but due to my current employer's policy, I'm unable to say anything further than 'yes, we worked together three years ago.'" They'll understand.

Other companies may not have a policy at all, so you'll be able to provide a glowing reference. It's important to research this first to know what you can and cannot say. And if you are able to talk freely about the person you're endorsing, prepare a few talking points.

3. Focus on the positive. This may sound like a no-brainer, but hiring managers do receive negative input from references about their potential new hires. And – attesting to the power of testimonials – these candidates rarely receive offers, mainly due to negative endorsements.

As a reference, if you're able to speak openly, definitely only focus on accolades. If someone asks you to be a reference, and you don't feel comfortable endorsing him or her because only negative attributes come to mind, politely decline his or her request. Only offer your services to people whose incredible performance, work ethic and skills you feel comfortable endorsing.

4. Be specific. In your own words, of course, think about how you want to endorse this person. Feel free to run it by him or her by saying something such like: "I'd like to highlight your ability to work well under pressure, like that time our hiring needs were slashed, and we were working with a really lean team and still managed to exceed our sales quotas. Is there anything else you'd like me to specifically mention?" Get granular in terms of skills and specific situations.

5. Make it relevant. The beauty of being a solid reference is that it doesn't take a lot of effort, and you're truly able to make an impact on someone's candidacy and professional brand. Ask the person if there are other skills he or she would like you to highlight that tie into the prospective job. For instance, if it's a sales job, then the example about exceeding sales quotas is spot on.

6. Put it in writing. For you, that is. Draft a few talking points and save them in Word or Outlook, so they're readily available when you receive the call or email. Being this organized and prepared will go a long way, especially if you're asked to send the testimonial via email. After some minor tailoring for the role in question, you'll be good to go.

7. Keep it real. Transparency and authenticity are critical. Mean what you say, say what you mean, and speak with enthusiasm! Since you're paying it forward by giving a testimonial for someone you endorse, hopefully the person endorsing you will do the same as well. Treat them how you would like to be treated.
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