Keeping a handy list of references isn't as easy as it once was...and it gets harder as you move into your 20s. When you're in high school, your guidance counselor is required to write a broad letter of recommendation to your college(s) of choice. When you're a college student, you're lucky if you can find a professor who knows you well enough to recommend you for your first job. And then when you're in a job, it's difficult to ask someone you work with to serve as a reference if you're looking to leave. But if you're a few years removed from school, can you really still ask that professor to endorse you?
A bit of a chicken and egg quandary, isn't it? You can't get a job without recommendations. But if you don't have that list of people in your back pocket, what's the best way to get someone to speak on your behalf?
1. Ask 'em before you list 'em
Hands down the biggest mistake I see among job seekers is listing individuals as references before asking them. I recently heard someone say, "When people list you as a reference but don't even tell you...it makes me want to give them a bad reference!" Not everyone will feel this strongly, but it's good practice to ask your references BEFORE you give away their information as your reference.
This means asking their permission for each and every position they could be contacted about. It doesn't mean you have to let them know every position you are applying to. It simply means that once you are offered an in-person interview you should reach out to your potential references to give them a heads up. Let them know you've made it to the interview stage and you'd like to see if they would serve as your professional reference.
Don't wait until after the interview. Most of the time when references are requested, they are expected within 24-48 hours.
2. Share your application materials
The first question your reference will want to know is, "What's the position?" That's followed up with, "What would you like me to highlight?"
Get ahead of these questions by having the job description, your cover letter, and most current resume on deck. This will give them the information they need without requiring unnecessary homework on the company or position at hand.
You can send these documents with your request. But if that feels too forward, it's perfectly fine to wait until you get a response back saying yes.
3. Be specific about what you want them to highlight
Ask people who you've worked with, who have positive things to say about you, AND who can provide specific anecdotes about why you'd be a good fit for the position.
In your request, let them known upfront why you think they would be a great reference and what you're hoping they can uniquely highlight. FYI - this means don't say you're asking them because you haven't stayed in touch with your former professors/employers/co-workers.
If you need a written recommendation, be sure to give them two weeks notice before you need it. In this format it's also helpful to have a bulleted list of your unique qualifications. This eases the process for your recommender, making it much more likely for them to get the document in by your deadline.
I've been asked to serve as a reference for people whom a) I've never worked with and b) I've not had very positive work experiences with. I don't like to be put in these positions and honestly I'd rather decline than have to admit my less than positive review of their work.
4. Thank them
It seems so obvious, but many people don't thank their references. More than just a "thank you" email, offer to take them out to coffee or send them a gift card for coffee if you're too far away to meet. It's a small gesture but it means a lot to someone, especially if they're asked to provide references often.
References should be part of your professional network. And what better way to cultivate your network than to go the extra mile with thanks? It will set you apart and make the person more willing to say yes to your requests time and again, which (unfortunately) may be required if you're on the job hunt.
5. Keep in touch
When your references agree to speak on your behalf, they genuinely want to know the outcome of the interaction. Did you get the job? Are you looking for something different? Let them know!
More than that, keep in touch and see what you can do for them. The best relationships are built on give and take. Even if you are more junior than your recommender, you can always stay interested in their own career and progress. Don't just be in touch with you need something. Connect with them, send business their way, and offer your time generously.