Some key points to consider when selecting referees

If you have not noticed, there are several things about the professional world that you won’t be taught in school. You could either pick them up by investing in yourself through development workshops, learning through mentorship, reading relevant articles (e.g., this blog!), or figuring it out the hard way. Unfortunately, many folks end up figuring things out through the school of hard knocks. When gunning for that dream position/academic award/contact, it makes sense to focus on seemingly weightier matters such as the preparation of your application package and how to ace the interviews, but easier to overlook the selection of appropriate referees, a seemingly less important task but with huge implications for your your immediate career and prospects.  I have sat on several hiring committees and award adjudication committees where the final decision the top 2 or 3 candidates for the position/award came down to the type of referees and/or quality of references provided. So, this is an important but often overlooked step in the application process. There are several important considerations that should guide your selection of references for your application.

  • Gauge the requirements and/or evaluation criteria.  Every advertised position/award has associated responsibilities or criteria by which applicants will be evaluated. Deciphering the core competences required for a position is essential for success . Some roles/awards may be require core technical competences while others may demand more people-facing skills. Often times, most positions require a combination of both technical and people skills.  Depending on the position/award you are applying for, carefully evaluate how the responsibilities in the job ad are described to understand what competences are required. This will inform how you select referees who can speak to your fit for the competences required for the role/award. If you are in doubt of competences required for the position/award, consider reaching out to the organization (e.g., HR unit) or finding contacts in the organization who can furnish you with more information about the role/award.  This principle also applies to academic applications, such as academic scholarships or admissions. Be diligent in reviewing the eligibility requirements and evaluation criteria. These criteria may include research experience, communication, leadership, academic excellence (e.g., another word for good grades!), and lived experiences. Then consider choosing references who can speak to how you have demonstrated these attributes in your career. For example, if the evaluation criteria for a scholarship award includes combination of academic, research, and professional experience, then consider choosing referees who can speak to each aspects of these criteria. A professor who taught you a course could speak about your track record of academic excellence, a research advisor could speak about your research experience, your former boss as a volunteer or intern can provide the professional piece. Ensure that the referees you select provide that complimentary information that will boost your chances for success

  • Proactively consider the availability and willingness of referees. Another important aspect of your consideration should be the availability and willingness of your referees to deliver for you.  Be intentional in double checking the availability of these potential referees to provide a good reference(s) in a timely manner when contacted. Check out my previous post on this blog titled “Etiquettes for Requesting References“.
  • Be strategic with your selection. I have been asked a few times to write a professional reference by folks I have not worked with or with whom I don’t share a professional relationship. It’s a common practice in most industries but one that may backfire if not well thought through. Such a request is based on the premise that a reference from one or two reputable individual in your field or industry carries more weight before the hiring or adjudication committee than low-cadre referees. This is not an entirely true premise. Choosing a highly influential or reputable individual in your industry who isn’t familiar with your professional work or with whom you have no professional relationship as a referee can backfire as the hiring/adjudication committee may view your application less favorable as it will lack the substance needed for them to evaluate your fit for the role. But if you have a proven work relationship with highly reputable and influential individuals in your field who are familiar with your work and can provide stellar reference for you, then consider listing them as your referees, provided they are willing and available to provide your strong references.

In conclusion, when next you are gunning for a new position, award, or contract, the points discussed above are recommended for guiding your selection of referees. The type of referees and the quality of references provided might end up being the most important determinant of your application success. Good luck!