I have had the occasional phone call  from a recruitment consultant or hiring manager reference checking a job candidate that has come out of the blue.

In some cases the job candidate was someone who had reported directly to me years ago and in others it was someone I had worked with within six months of me getting the phone call.

I always bristle a little at such calls. Why did the candidate not warn me before listing me as someone who could talk about his or her work performance? Is this just a new social norm? The people involved were never discourteous at work so why would they list me as a referee without asking me first. Or warning me? Such action has always struck me as out of alignment with the candidate’s personal brand – at least the personal brand I had come to know.

Whatever is going on, not priming those you list as referees is a lost opportunity. Here is why managing your referees is crucial to your success.

Are your referees still your referees?

There comes a point when the information someone can offer about you becomes dated. That time could depend on the reference checker but it could also depend on the referee. Memories fade and people move on in life.  Always check in with your referees to make sure they are still happy to speak on your behalf.

Contact details change

This would seem like a no brainer but it is worth repeating. Not only do cell phone numbers change but people also move jobs. When job-hunting it is best to make it as easy as possible to hire you. You want to be able to provide up-to-date details about each of your referees including their current job role and employer, a landline as well as a cell number and also an email address. Also provide details of when and where you worked for or with each of your referees.

Brief your referee

Even when you have checked in with referees to gain their permission to list them in a job application, it is a good idea to contact them again once you have been through a selection process and it appears likely that a reference checker will contact them. Make sure your referees have details about the employer, the job role as well as the skills, attributes, experience, education and training the employer is looking for in a successful candidate.

Provide memory pointers 

While it is never good form to tell a referee what to say about you, it is fine to include relevant details from your shared work history to jog his or her memory. You are the one that has interviewed for the role and who has had the conversations with the potential employer so you are the one with the inside information. You can do this without appearing pushy by including a polite sentence in your email such as,  “I include a few dot points from our days at X company that may prove useful in the context of what Y company is looking for. However, feel free to disregard this information if it does not apply. ” Make sure the dot points are factual rather than glowing descriptions of your past job performance. Everyone’s time is valuable and you don’t want your referee thinking later, “darn, if only I had remembered more”.  Managers usually remember their own achievements more vividly that those of their team members. It’s called being human.

Let your referees know what happened

In the interest of courtesy, follow up with your referees to let them know the result of the job interview. Thank them either way and ask if you can stay in touch. Besides, referees could be a good source of future job leads if need be.


Kate Southam has been giving people advice on careers for 13 years. She has been the editor of a career website, author of a syndicated newspaper column and remains a regular blogger. She also continues to coach individuals as well as provide commentary on careers and workplace issues to TV, radio and magazines. Kate is also a communications consultant advising businesses. Follow Kate on Twitter @KateSoutham.