It was once standard practice for job applicants to provide written references from previous employers. Often these followed a conventional style, provided little information and allowed the candidate to hide behind a multitude of minor sins. However, these days prospective employers prefer to speak directly with referees to really get the lowdown on a candidate.

"Speaking to referees allows employers to ask very specific questions relevant to your ability to perform well in the role you've applied for," says Ali Hunter, career coach and CV profile writer at Career Insights.

"Exaggerating on CVs isn't that uncommon, so this allows them to verify CV information as well as what you've told them at an interview."

From the employer's perspective, says Hunter, it's all about minimising risk.

Advertisement

"They'll take the opportunity to ensure everything they've seen and heard so far stacks up. They'll be asking for clarification on your responsibilities, how you performed those responsibilities, what you achieved, and any areas of development. They may ask about your soft skills and will want to know about your reliability and punctuality. A key question often asked is 'Would you hire this person again?' How your referee answers this question could seriously damage your chances of success, so you want to be sure the answer will be 'Yes'.

The best way to ask someone to become a referee is to call to ask permission and tell them as much about the job as possible, which will give context and help them frame how they talk about your abilities, says Hunter.

"Send them a copy of the advert or job description. If there were particular projects you worked on that are relevant to the role and your referee is able to talk about those, let them know. And if it's been a while since you worked with your referee, it's a good idea to update them on your recent work history and perhaps even send them your CV."

Hunter says it's essential that you ask the person before you give their name as a referee.

"It's common courtesy to let them know someone will be in contact and it's polite to let your referee know to expect a call every time you apply for a job. It's good practice to find out from your referees the best way of contacting them and their availability, before providing their details."

Job applicants often feel they should include referee details in their CVs or cover letters, but Hunter says that's not necessary. "It takes up valuable space that could be better utilised to sell yourself and it gives you less control. It's nice to be able to give your referees a heads-up about receiving a call and it also gives you the opportunity to tell them about the role in more detail.

"Potential employers need your consent to speak to your referees and it's a good idea to provide this in writing. You might want to include the referee's current job title and place of employment, their mobile, email and work number. If they've moved on, provide their former role title and the organisation you worked at together."

How should you choose which of your former employers to ask and when should you NOT ask someone to be a referee?

Advertisement

Hunter says often the prospective employer will provide guidance on who they want to speak to.

"Typically, they want to speak to someone you've reported to, ideally from your two most recent roles. If your current employer isn't yet aware that you're in job search mode then you may want to avoid asking them, however, most employers view career progression positively and understand that employees aren't going to stay forever.

"The reference check is an integral part of the recruitment process and has the potential to make or break your application, so you'll want to be sure your referees are going to make you look good and not jeopardise your chances of landing the job. It's important you choose your referees wisely — you'll want to know they can be positive about your performance.

"If you think a former manager may not give you a good reference, it's best not to ask them. If the recruiter insists on speaking with that person, it pays to be transparent and explain why you'd prefer they didn't, what the issue was and what you've learned from it. And although employers can't speak to a former manager without your permission, refusing often raises questions. Most recruiters will appreciate you being honest and would prefer to know the context. Depending on the situation, you might find they're quite sympathetic."

In a perfect world, all candidates would be able to provide the name of a previous manager or supervisor they've reported to, even if it's for a holiday job or volunteer position.

However, if the candidate is young or has no work experience, they may be asked for a reference from someone who can discuss their personality, values and attributes. "If they've recently been studying, a lecturer or teacher who knows them well would be a good choice," says Hunter.

Employers may ask referees how a candidate

Communicates

Behaves under pressure

Works in a team

Builds relationships.

Top tip

Never be tempted to provide a fake referee. Vigilant recruiters will check contact details and can usually spot when something sounds amiss.