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Job references: Why you need them and how to assemble a strong lineup that will support you

May 1, 2019

When families look to hire a new caregiver, trustworthiness is one of the most valued qualities. Whether they’re looking for someone to care for their new baby, an aging parent or a beloved pet, they need to know the person they’re hiring is not only qualified, but has a proven track record of providing competent, compassionate care.

One of the easiest ways to build a potential client’s trust in your abilities is by providing them with great references. A solid professional reference can give potential employers an idea of how you function on the job, how dependable you are and whether or not you’re the best fit for their family.

We spoke with Florence Ann Romano, a former nanny and Chicago-based child care expert behind WindyCityNanny.com, and Sara Schaer, the San Francisco-based co-founder and CEO of Kango, a ride-sharing and child care app for kids, to get their tips on how to build a strong list of references. They answer 11 commonly asked questions on how to make the most of your advocates.

1. What makes a great reference?

Different employers look for different things when checking references, but there are a few standard guidelines that will ensure you’re offering up the best people. Schaer and Romano both agree that a strong reference is someone who:

  • Has worked with you within the past six months to a year

  • Knows you in a professional capacity and has had time to establish a working relationship with you

  • Can speak directly to the skills and experience you possess that match the job you’re seeking

  • Had a positive experience working with you

“Choose people that are going to be able to speak positively about you and be able to speak in detail,” says Romano.

You can’t control what a reference will say about you, but you should have a solid idea of what their experience with you was like and what they might be likely to say about you.

2. Who should you use as references?

“Start with the most current [employer], assuming you had a good, positive experience,” says Romano. “Definitely don’t list the people that you had a negative experience with.

If you were let go after a short amount of time because an employer moved away, you can still use them as a reference if they’re able to say they enjoyed working with you and were sad to have to let you go, Romano says.

You can also ask other colleagues who have seen you function in your role, people who have worked with you in volunteer positions or leadership roles within other organizations and people who know you from internships or other relevant placements.

“Keep your references up to date,” Romano says. “Don’t use a family that you worked for 10 years ago… If it’s been 10 years and you’ve had other jobs in between, you’re going to want references from people that are more current.”

An older reference will not be able to speak to any new job skills you’ve acquired since working for them, and their memory of your time working for them may not be as accurate as someone who has worked with you more recently.

3. Is it OK to use family members or close friends as references?

Generally, personal references are not preferred.

“You want [the reference] to be someone you’ve worked for in a higher capacity,” says Schaer.

But she adds, if the reference is a relative or friend, “Sometimes those are very candid, and it can be reassuring to have a reference from a person who has known someone ever since they were a child.”

Still, it’s not a good idea to turn to personal references unless you have exhausted every other option, simply because they haven’t witnessed you in a professional capacity and won’t be able to give the same strong feedback that a former employer or colleague would.

4. Is it OK to include a reference from a different industry?

If you’re just starting out in your industry or you have a contact who would make a great character reference but they worked with you at a different type of job, it’s OK to include that person. In fact, it can be beneficial, according to Schaer, for an employer to see how your core skills and values function across industries.

That said, references from other industries need to be people who can speak to specific reasons why you’re a good fit for the job for which you’re applying. If you formerly worked at a bakery and someone wants to talk about your amazing cake decorating skills, that’s not particularly helpful. However, if they can talk about your reliability, your ability to manage multiple tasks successfully and how you went out of your way to make customers happy, that’s a strong reference to include.

5. Who should I use as a reference if I’m just starting out in my field?

If you don’t have references who can speak directly to your caregiving experience, think about who can provide a great character reference, says Romano. Former employers are still a safe bet if they can speak to your reliability, punctuality and professionalism, but also consider any source who can highlight specific strengths that apply to the job you’re seeking.

“Let’s say you’re a school teacher and now you’re going to transition into being a nanny,” Romano says. “That speaks volumes about how you are around children.”

Think about how your prior work experience can translate into your new role, and choose references who can speak to that overlap.

6. How do I ask for a reference?

References are traditionally requested in writing. Romano says she sends emails to former clients she hopes to use as a reference, highlighting why her time with them was essential to her growth as a professional.

“I always want to reinforce that my time spent with that family was so valuable that I believe they would be able to speak positively on my behalf about what hiring me as a nanny would afford the [new] family I would be working for,” Romano says.

7. How many references do I need?

Most employers require three references, but Romano says to keep double that number in your arsenal.

“I would say have at least six [references] always ready to go to, and give those references the courtesy of tipping them off that it’s hunting season when you’re going to be job hunting,” she says.

8. Should I do anything to prepare my references?

In addition to letting references know that they may be getting a phone call soon, it’s helpful to give them a quick background about the job for which you’re applying. The last thing you want is for your reference to be totally clueless when a potential employer calls.

Tell your references about the job you’re trying to get and how you feel it fits with your prior experience. You can even send them a copy of your resume as a refresher on things like the dates you worked for them and the job responsibilities you listed.

9. Do I have to find new references every time I apply for a job?

No. However, you should tailor your references to the position for which you are applying.

As Schaer points out, references are often used by potential employers to fill information gaps about your skills, abilities and job performance. You want references who are specific, recent and knowledgeable.

10. Do online testimonials on sites like Care.com or LinkedIn count as references?

Potential employers are often looking to quickly gather as much information on your past job performances as they can. For this reason, those online testimonials can be vital to getting their attention and piquing their interest.

“That’s a way to… give a little test or evaluation as [clients] are vetting people,” says Romano.

However, she says, employers will probably still want to speak with actual referrals in person or on the phone before they hire you.

11. How and when should my list of references be presented?

References should be provided upon request, because employers usually do not check references until you’ve made it through a preliminary interview or two. They can be presented in list form and formatted simply:

John A. Smith
1234 Big Apple Drive
New York, New York 10001
(555) 555-5555
johnsmith@internet.com

“I always like to include a little bit of a biography with each reference,” says Romano. “[I provide] the name and the contact information, and then I also say something like, ‘I was with this family for X amount of years. I took care of X number of people, and these were their ages,’ just to give the potential employer a basis for the conversation.”

Read next: How to get the work contract you deserve

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