How to Be a Good Professional Reference

How to Be a Good Professional Reference was originally published on Vault.

Throughout your career, you’ll undoubtedly meet some people who will make great professional references for you. You can rely on your professional references whenever you’re looking for a new job, as they can provide potential employers with further details about your work history, performance, and personality—but what happens when someone asks you to be a reference? Today we’re going to talk all about how to be a good professional reference, so without further ado, let’s begin.

Being a professional reference for somebody else is a big responsibility. Your perspective and opinions on the person in question can sometimes be the deciding factors on whether they’re hired for a job or not, so it’s important that you can speak from a place of honesty and with a certain depth of knowledge. In most cases the person who asks you has already built some rapport with you, so this should be relatively easy to achieve; however, you might also be asked to take on this responsibility for someone who you don’t have a lot of experience with or that you don’t necessary view in a positive light, but we’ll get more into that later.

First and foremost, you should begin to take note of all the responsibilities of the person who asked you to be a reference. What does their day-to-day look like? What is their main function at the company? Believe it or not, you might become close with a coworker without knowing every detail about their tasks and responsibilities, so it pays to ask questions if you’re unsure.

Next, it’s time to determine what makes your coworker a great candidate. What are their greatest strengths? What are some examples of times where they went above and beyond? The best examples are ones that you have personally observed, as you can speak to them with a high degree of confidence—this will be incredibly important later on. It’s also worth taking note of anything your coworker needs to improve upon, as you may be asked to talk about their weaknesses. Here, you should only mention weaknesses that you have seen improve over time, such as working knowledge of a particular software program.

Your coworker’s personality is also very important to potential employers, as they will want to be able to determine if a candidate is a good fit for their workplace culture. Is your coworker highly motivated? Do they approach problems with care and optimism? A great candidate is someone who self-motivates, lends a helping hand, and maintains a positive outlook. These are the qualities you’re looking for when speaking about your coworker. Keep a detailed record of any information that would be relevant to potential employers, that way you can reference it later.

Typically, you’ll receive a phone call from any potential employers that your coworker has applied to, which is where our handy list comes into play. In most cases you should be able to speak about your coworker without a list, but we all get tripped up once in a while, so it’s best to have some reference materials readily available. Earlier, we mentioned how important your demeanor is throughout this process. When speaking to the hiring manager or HR representative, remember to smile. Even if the other person can’t see you, your tone of voice will come off as bright and energetic if you’re smiling. The phone call won’t last much more than several minutes, so it should be relatively easy to maintain a happy, optimistic tone throughout.

Potential employers may also ask you to fill out a questionnaire. Here, you won’t have your energetic tone of voice to rely on, but if you’ve been taking notes about your coworker you should be fine. These questionnaires are usually pretty simple, and won’t ask too many complex questions. Here are some examples of questions you might encounter when acting as a reference:

  • Why is [name of candidate] leaving [name of current employer]?
  • What are some of [name of candidate]’s best achievements?
  • What are [name of candidate]’s best strengths?
  • Is [name of candidate] reliable?
  • What does [name of candidate] need to work on?
  • Does [name of candidate] work well with others?

Once in a while, you might get a request from a coworker who you don’t know much about, or that you don’t hold in high esteem. In this scenario, it can be difficult to speak about them in a confident and convincing manner, which won’t do them any good. Remember, you don’t have to be a reference when you’re asked; it’s just a professional courtesy. If you’re happy and excited to be a reference for a coworker who you think will be a great candidate, it will come through when you speak to the hiring manager. If you aren’t enthused, it will also be apparent.

If you decide that you don’t want to be a reference for someone, you can politely decline by saying something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I don’t think I would be a good reference for you, but I can ask around and try to find someone else.” Asking someone to be a professional reference is a big deal, and it should be a responsibility that you feel confident in taking on. It’s also worth mentioning that when you agree to be a reference for someone else, they’ll be more likely to help you out later on in your career. This is another way in which we make long-lasting professional connections.