How To Choose Your Referees

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Your referees are very important in the job seeking process. Most people focus on presenting their qualifications, skills and experience and spend little time deciding who should be their referees. But choosing a good referee can make all the difference. If you choose the wrong person, you might be rejected from jobs that were perfect for you.

What do referees do?

Referees provide extra information that lets a potential employee know about your work history, your skills and experience. This information reinforces what you have written on your CV by giving someone else’s word that your claims are accurate.

However, your referee can also be asked to give an opinion on your character, commenting on factors such as your reliability and punctuality.

Occasionally employers ask for a character reference only, but usually they want to hear about aspects of your work history and your character.

Who can be your referee?

The best people to be your referees are:

  • former employers, especially a mentor or boss
  • your teacher/lecturer/tutor
  • your PhD supervisor or examiner 

Do not choose:

  • a friend of the family or a neighbour (unless they have specific knowledge of your work)

The best references are written by people who know you well, so pick the person you worked most closely with at your last job, or the lecturer who you got on best with. Obviously it helps if you had a friendly working relationship with them too. Choose someone who will write a sympathetic reference and be as positive about you as possible.

How to choose them?

It is good etiquette to ask for people’s permission to act as your referee before giving their name to a potential employer.

Some people will act as referee for you for several years. Others might be only suitable when you apply for a particular type of job. Think about what each person can say about you and whether their knowledge of you is relevant to the particular job you’re applying for.

You must give your referees’ names and contact details at the bottom of your CV.

How many do I need?

Most people have two referees. However, a few jobs ask for three referees so make sure that you have a reserve that you can call on.

Some reference myths:

1.) It is illegal to provide a bad reference!

Of course referees cannot lie about you. They must not say bad things about you that are not true, but if they genuinely feel that you are not suited for that job they can say so. Most referees will refuse to act for you if they feel that they would have to write a bad reference.

2.) An applicant has the right to see his/her references

This is a difficult area. The rights of the referee and the applicant have to be delicately balanced under UK employment law. A referee can request that his or her reference is kept secret, but in many cases referees will be happy to disclose their reference to you. You may even be shown the reference in advance before it is sent to the potential employer. If an employee feels their chances have been affected by a bad reference that has been marked as confidential, they can appeal that decision and the potential employer might be forced to reveal the reference.

Career Development Toolkit for Higher Education Professionals

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