The care and feeding of professional references


When is the correct time to think about your professional references? Now, whether you need them or not. As with many things in life, luck favors those who are well prepared.

A good reference should be familiar with and have a positive opinion of your work. References do not have to be your supervisors, though many employers prefer that. It is perfectly appropriate to ask a peer or someone you’ve worked with on a project, team or committee, especially if their experience working with you relates to this new position’s needs.

How do you cultivate references that are ready when you need them? It all comes down to staying connected throughout your career, not just during your job search.

April McHugh UW–Madison career counselor
April McHugh: ‘Stay in touch, even when you move on.’

Here are a few quick tips.

Learn how to form and maintain professional relationships. This is an essential skill to build. As you meet people who are invested in your career—whether they are mentors, supervisors or peers—make it easy for them to be familiar with your accomplishments.

Keep your relationships active. Remember that relationships are a two-way street, so do your part by nurturing them. Connect regularly with your professional contacts to talk about challenges, solicit advice or share information they might find useful. You can do this in person, by sending a quick email every few months or even by giving them a shoutout on social media.

Don’t let relationships end when you change jobs. It is always a good idea to stay in touch, even when you move on. You may someday want to return to a former employer, or you may spot a job that would be perfect for someone you used to work with.

Ask permission. When you need to provide a list of references, all of your relationship building will make that conversation easier to have, and make it easier for your references to say yes. Explain that you are searching for work and ask if it is okay to use them as a reference.

Coach your references. Describe the job you are interested in and what specific skills you’d like them to speak about on your behalf. You might also offer to send them an updated version of your resume, the URL to your LinkedIn profile and a copy of the job description.

Always say thank you. No matter what happens with the job, make sure to express your appreciation to your references and let them know the status of your search.

Offer to act as a reference. If you’re impressed with your colleagues’ work, do whatever you can to pay it forward. Provide positive feedback to their supervisors and copy your colleague on the correspondence. Submit a recommendation on LinkedIn. Or acknowledge their work in a meeting or on social media.

To sum it up: Develop authentic relationships and make an effort to stay connected. By forming genuine bonds with people who think well of you and whom you appreciate, you will naturally have a network of people who are happy to see you succeed.

April McHugh is a senior career counselor in UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies and leads a free weekly Job Search Support Group in Madison. Contact her at april.mchugh@wisc.edu.

This article originally ran in the Wisconsin State Journal.