First Job vs. Next Job: Your References

Continuing my series about the differences between applying for your first job after college and taking the next step in your career, today’s post will make suggestions about who you should ask for references…and what a prospective employer is likely to expect.

While you’re in college, you should start to think about creating a list of references that you can use when you begin the application process. You should not include those references on your resume, but have them ready to provide to any employer who asks for them. You should not have a line on your resume that says something like “References available upon request.” Including a line like that does two things: it wastes space, and, frankly, it makes you look a bit ridiculous. OF COURSE you will provide references if requested, so why should you state the obvious?

Before I go further, I want to share a few general pieces of advice about creating a reference list (either before you start or later in your career):

  • Select individuals who can speak to the types of skills and experiences that employers are looking for. (I wrote about those attributes in this blog from December through the beginning of this month, so you can go back and scan that list to review specifics.)
  • Ask each individual if they are willing to serve as a reference. Also ask them the best way that they would like to be contacted, that is, phone or email.
  • Ensure that you have the correct email address and/or phone number for each reference.

You’ll find more advice about creating the reference list in my book’s Tip 40. Create your reference list. While I’m at it, I’ll also explain the difference between asking someone to be a reference and asking for a letter of recommendation. When you ask someone to be a reference, it means asking if they are willing to be contacted by a prospective employer, either by email or telephone, to answer questions about your suitability for a job. This typically involves 10-15 minutes of their time. When you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation, you are asking for a much bigger favor. Writing a letter of recommendation requires the individual to actually compose a letter for a particular employer, outlining the ways in which you are appropriate for the specific job. For me, writing a letter of recommendation can take anywhere from an hour to several hours, depending on how well I know the student for whom I’m writing the letter and how many old files I have to go through to refresh my memory with sufficient details to craft a persuasive letter.

Getting back to creating that reference list for your first job after college, you have several options, and it wouldn’t hurt to have at least one person from each category on your list:

  • Your professors are the most likely people to ask to provide a reference. Employers are going to expect you to have some of your major professors, and possibly other professors who can speak to other abilities relevant to the job. For example, if the job description says that good written and oral communication skills are required (which is a common requirement), you may want to include an English or Communication professor, even if you’re an engineer or accountant.
  • Employers or co-workers from any co-op or internship experience. Since many employers now expect college graduates to have completed some type of relevant work experience while in school, they will expect to see an employer on your list.
  • Employers from any part-time or summer jobs, even if not relevant. Although the manager of a restaurant may not be able to speak to your computer skills, they can talk about your abilities with regard to team work, leadership, responsibility, and interpersonal skills.
  • Supervisors from volunteer experiences. This is especially important if you are applying for a job in the nonprofit sector, but can also help demonstrate abilities such as dedication, motivation, and responsibility.

Although you may be able to keep some of these references on your list for a few years, once you have spent a year or two in your first career-relevant job, your list is likely to change. This gets a bit tricky, as the most obvious person to be at the top of your new reference list is your current boss, but if you’re still employed and don’t want your employer to know you’re thinking about changing jobs, you obviously can’t list him or her. So I’m going to make these suggestions based on your situation:

  • If you’ve been downsized, ask your boss and co-workers to serve as references.
  • If you’ve been fired, you may still be able to ask some of your co-workers to serve as references, but you need to be sure that both you and they have an appropriate explanation for why you were fired that won’t keep a new employer from hiring you.
  • If you’re looking to advance, talk with your supervisor about your career options. Don’t present it as “I’m thinking abut leaving,” but instead ask for advice about how you can move to a position of more responsibility. If they acknowledge that there aren’t likely to be any opportunities within your company, you can ask if they would serve as a reference if you were to decide to explore your options. You have to be very careful here, because it’s never a good idea to let your boss know you’re thinking about leaving! You will have to gauge your decision about this based on your relationship with your boss and his or her response to your question about your next career move.
  • If you’re sure you want to leave your current position—regardless of the reason—but you don’t want your boss to know, you’re most likely going to have to stick with your reference list from college. Before each new job search make sure you contact all of the people on the list again to ensure that they are still willing to serve as a reference and that their contact information has not changed.

Once you have had several jobs, you can build your reference list using past employers. And it won’t take long for that to happen. According to an article in Forbes, if you were born between 1977 and 1997, you will probably change jobs every two or three years, which means you could have 15 or more jobs during your life!