(MoneyWatch) Most experienced, savvy job seekers will ask references for permission before using them. This check-in might be in the form of a quick phone call, in person or by email -- whatever is most convenient for that person. Ideally, this heads up prevents you from naming someone who doesn't have the time to act as a reference or worse, doesn't like you or remember you.
If you reach out early, you'll have time to brief them. "Don't wait until the employer asks you for your references to prep them. Very often you do not have a lot of time from the moment you hand over your list to the time that they are called. I suggest that job seekers contact their references as soon as they start getting calls for interviews," says Cheryl Palmer, founder of Call to Career, a career coaching firm. Properly preparing references can lead them to say certain things that may just get you the job. Here are some of those key phrases -- and how to elicit them.
"This job fits him because of X"
You don't just want the reference to recommend you; you want him or her to recommend you for this job. "To ensure that your references are helpful, you should connect with each one following an interview in order to share with them what you learned during the interview that is critical to that position," says Sharon Armstrong, author of "The Essential Performance Review Handbook." What are a few technical, interpersonal or other types of skills that are crucial to this position? Share them with the reference. "Then if you can, remind the references of those projects that you did with or for them that will best reflect those abilities required in the new role. Supplying specific situations will showcase your skills and reinforce what you shared during the interview," says Armstrong.
"She is wonderful because of X, Y and Z"
Your reference is essentially telling the story of you as an employee, and the best stories have powerful, demonstrative details. "The best information that can be provided by phone reference people and letter of recommendation writers will focus on the candidate's specific, measurable, tangible results. Vague, bland descriptions of general traits and attributes will not work!" says Ford Myers, author of "Get The Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring." He suggests helping references come up with these tangibles by supplying them with items like your cover letter, resume and a professional biography -- essentially, talking points. If it's in your elevator pitch, it is fodder for a reference.
"I worked side by side with him"
You should never use a reference who you worked with very briefly or in an indirect way, even if they are very senior or notable industry players. "A sharp reference reviewer will find out quickly and won't be able to obtain the information they are seeking. That's a strike against you," says Heather McNab, author of "What Top Professionals Need to Know About Answering Job Interview Questions." The best reference supports you but also knows you well. That doesn't mean they're gushing like a proud parent. "The reviewer needs to know your weak points, your level of self-awareness about them and how you manage them. Your reference should be comfortable with sharing an honest assessment of you and your development," says McNab.
"I'm so glad you called"
If you're job-searching for awhile and interviewing frequently, it can seem unnecessary to reach out to your references each time you use them. But it's crucial to do it every single time. "No one likes to be caught flat-footed. By giving him or her a heads up, it will allow for adequate preparation," says Meryl Weinsaft Cooper, co-author of "Be Your Own Best Publicist: How To Use PR Techniques To Get Noticed, Get Hired & Get Rewarded At Work." You might not talk through or re-email your whole "package" (resume, talking points, etc.) for each job, but you should refresh his or her memory and give them new information that applies. Sometimes, a previous reference will decline to be your point person for a particular position because of their relationship with your interviewer or the company. It's better to find this out sooner rather than later.
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