How to Prepare Your Employment References Through Effective Coaching

Business holding up his resume, worrying about his employment referencesIt began with an Employment Application. Your resume was flawless. You nailed the interview. You sealed the deal and now it all comes down to the simplest part of the process: the employment references. Certainly, these people are on your side and want the best for you. You are positive everyone will volunteer their confidence in you…right?

As a former Recruiter and Hiring Manager, I agree that 20% of job offers are lost due to poor employment references. Frequently, people believe they are giving a great recommendation, but become the reason you never set foot in XYZ Industries again. Their best intentions cost you an amazing opportunity.This CAN be prevented!

These 5 steps will ensure your references are at the top of their game and not “fumbling through the pass.” The way to build a great team of references is through excellent coaching. We will train YOU to lead your references to a “career win.”


Cartoon of hand picking up a person from a rowThe first step in receiving an outstanding reference is providing great references. Select individuals with whom you’ve had a positive working relationship. The best references are broken down into these categories: Employers/Supervisors, Coworkers, Subordinates, Customers, and Indirect Professional Relationships (Vendors, etc.). Only 2-3 solid references are needed, but your strategy should include at least 2 of each of the above professionals in your rolodex to showcase all your abilities as a “captain of industry.”

People you should never list as a reference include: Family, Non-Professional Friends, and Employers with Negative Histories. According to a top reference checking firm, 70% of all references contain SOME negative input with 50% actually being an entirely negative reference.


The second step in optimizing references is to ask their permission to be contacted. Often, a reference is surprised to receive a request for recommendation. The reference may be unprepared or annoyed that their permission to disclose their contact information wasn’t given or their availability was assumed. Your reference is doing you a favor. They are agreeing to donate time from their busy day to vouch for YOU without any compensation. Most people are happy to provide employment references, but a little common courtesy still goes a long way.

Once you’ve selected your references, ASK if they are willing to recommend you. Be certain you have their current phone number AND email address. Disclose that the prospective employer may contact them through both. If possible, provide potential dates/times of contact. Ask your employment references for THEIR best dates/times to be your “cheerleader.”


mikaela moodyNow that you have references’ permission, the third step is communication. Ensure each reference understands the position under consideration. Disclose the information you gave the interviewer regarding your duties and accomplishments during your tenure with your reference. Remind them of your previous title and if appropriate, your beginning and ending salary.

Discuss highlights of your previous employment along with the number of times you were promoted, awards/honors received, and accolades received during performance reviews. Be certain your reference’s former working relationship with you is accurately conveyed (Direct Supervisor, Co-Worker, Direct Report, etc.?).


The fourth step in coaching your employment references is preparation for difficult or uncomfortable questions. The commonly known adage “the best offense is a great defense” is an excellent strategy to employ. The prospective employer may ask your reference “What is their greatest weakness?” “What was the worst mistake they made?” “Where is their biggest challenge?” It is crucial your reference knows WHY the question is being asked as well as HOW to answer it.

The true reason these questions are asked is to uncover your abilities to grow and learn. The employer is really asking “Does this individual have self-awareness?” “Do they own their responsibilities?” “Do they take proactive initiatives?”

5. Let’s strategize these 3 employment reference examples:

“What is the candidate’s greatest weakness?”
Best Reference Response:
“(YOU) originally had difficulties in leadership. They were new to management and overcompensated by trying to be ‘tough.’’ Their team didn’t respond well, and it caused low productivity. However, (YOU) identified the problem early. They took accountability and asked one of the top producing managers for advice. They realized their own error and created an incentive program which increased productivity by 70% and is still in use.”

“What was the candidate’s worst mistake?”
Best Reference Response:
“(YOU) had a time sensitive order that they sent to the wrong client. When they realized their mistake, they immediately called the driver and halted delivery. They contacted the client and disclosed the delay. They promised they would do everything to ensure the product was received promptly. The client was upset because it would cause a delay for their customer. (YOU) offered to call the customer on behalf of the client to let them know it was their own error. They informed the client that the next order would be delivered early, free of charge. There was no additional cost to the company AND they were able to secure additional business from a potentially disastrous situation.”

“Where is their biggest challenge?”
Best Reference Response:
“(YOU) had difficulty asking for help. A situation arose that needed additional input. In the past, they insisted on diffusing those situations alone. But, this time they weren’t making progress. They put their pride aside and asked for advice. Their superior made their recommendations. (YOU) apologized to the client for not initially having the solution and ensured immediate resolution. (YOU) took ownership and made certain the client did not leave without total satisfaction.”


The fifth and final step in coaching your employment references is to convey gratitude. Thank them for providing a great recommendation. Seize this opportunity for future networking. Commit to reciprocate the service. Invite them to them to coffee to catch up on their career. You might open additional doors for possible employment. You will strengthen the value of your network for yourself, your connections, and your future employers.

A great team begins with great coaching and great leadership! ©2018
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