Time for a referee health check? Be strategic, get organized and help your referees help you

Referees are key to job search success.  In a competitive job market adversely impacted by COVID-19, it pays to ensure the referees you are putting forward are the most appropriate for the job you are applying for. Be strategic when putting forward someone to speak about your work, achievements, skills, and cultural fit for the job you are in the running for. Here are just a few tips that may help.

Choose carefully – referees need to know your character and your work contributions

How well do they know you? Your referees should be able to speak about your achievements, strengths, and areas in which you may need further developing – in the context of their work relationship with you.  If they cannot speak about these adequately, the referee phone call may become uncomfortable for them which ultimately reflects poorly on you, the candidate.

When putting forward a former manager, you should be very confident they would respond positively to this question – Would you rehire this person?  If you have any concerns about this, think carefully about asking them.

Compiling a referee list

Aim for at least three people who might be able to support your job application. This helps you match the referee to the job and avoids over reliance on the same person which can be challenging if you are on the short list for several positions. Also, some recruiters now want to speak to your referees before starting the recruiting process which is a practice proving difficult for many candidates and their well-meaning referees. Referee fatigue is real.

Who else can I ask to be referee?

This question is asked by job seekers of all ages and career stages. The challenge is made more difficult for young people with limited work experience, those who have lost contact with their former referees or their referees are long retired, people who have been out of the workforce for an extended period, the self-employed, or those whose last job and/or relationship with their manager did not end well. Think broadly. Some of the following suggestions may work for you.

  • Current supervisor if appropriate
  • Former supervisor with current employer or previous employer
  • Manager of an adjoining internal division who knows your work well
  • Long standing former client(s) or external stakeholder you maintained a strong relationship with and provided a service relevant to the job you are applying for
  • Person you mentored or managed who really benefited from your leadership
  • Former colleague with whom you worked closely who has now been promoted internally or externally
  • Colleague in another section of your company who you helped/provided specialist advice to on several occasions, resulting in a specific outcome
  • Chair of a committee or internal working group you contributed to substantially
  • Representative of an organisation you volunteered with who knows you well
  • Chair of the school council when you were an active parent representative
  • Sporting coach, teacher, academic, trainer – particularly for young job candidates

Match the referee to the job

This is IMPORTANT. Consider the key selection criteria for the job and the organisation’s profile. A recent client was short listed for a position as a senior client relationship manager. She included a supervisor and we discussed the possibility of adding a former long-term client she had collaborated closely with on a key project, to give his perspective as a client. He was delighted to help; this impressed the recruiter and she was successful.

Is putting forward my most senior referee always the best option?

Often, though not always. There is little point listing the company CEO, as opposed to your supervisor, unless they are briefed appropriately and it is clear they know you and your work. Putting forward both is ideal as they can offer different perspectives.

Context matters too. If you are a candidate for a senior leadership role, why not also consider putting forward as a referee someone you have managed or mentored to help them develop professionally as evidence of your leadership style.

Maintain contact with your referees and brief them. Help them to help you!

Communication is key. Quite apart from reflecting poorly on you, you cannot

expect your referee to do a good job selling you if they have not heard from you in years and have no idea what job you have applied for. Make sure to reconnect and aim to keep your referees as current and relevant as possible.

Some suggestions:

  • Provide your referee with an updated copy of your CV, highlighting anything important.
  • Brief them about the job you have been shortlisted for and why you have applied. Do not assume they will know why you are changing careers or jobs.
  • Remind them of your key contributions during the time you worked or volunteered together – especially as they relate to the job you are applying for.
  • Update them about anything very significant that may have happened since you worked together e.g. won an award, worked on a high-profile project, were absent from the workforce for several years.

Avoid listing referees on your CV

It is widely understood that candidates will need to put forward referees so it unnecessary to include them. It can also be counterproductive as a recruiter may call your referees at any time during the recruitment process before you can brief them about the job. Better that you control the selection of your referees and put forward their contact details when requested. Of course, if you have a very high-profile and relevant referee you would love to flag on your CV, why not include a brief testimonial from them on page one of your CV.

Make sure contact details for your referees are up to date

Providing the wrong contact details or outdated information about your referee’s current position is a red flag for hiring managers. Ask your referees how they would like to be contacted and the best time to contact them saves time for the recruiter and makes you look efficient.

Do I need to put forward my most recent supervisor/employer when I left on difficult terms?

This can be tricky. If asked, be honest, positive and provide alternatives. Most people have experienced a situation where, for various reasons, a working relationship does not work. A client had worked for an organization for several years and for the previous 12 months experienced a difficult working relationship with his line supervisor, who was new to supervising. His position was made redundant. Short listed for a role, he had been asked for the contact details of his most recent supervisor. We discussed how best to present an appropriate and honest explanation as to why his former supervisor and a senior manager from another division would be able to provide more substantive information relevant to the position he was in consideration for. He was successful.

Keep getting close and missing out on a job offer? Seek feedback from hiring managers

There are many factors at play, however if you reach the referee check stage a few times without success, ask for feedback about your referee reports and specifically, whether they believe you would benefit from putting forward alternate referees to speak on your behalf.


Check your referees are happy to remain on your list. This is crucial.

Most importantly, thank them for their time and belief in you.

Helen Green is a careers practitioner and writer. She is Director of 
Career Confident in Melbourne. Helen is a professional member of the Career Development Association of Australia.

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