How to prepare for a job reference call—and give your former employee the best shot at a new job

by Gaby Gramont

job reference

Have you ever been asked to serve as a reference for a former employee or colleague? Do you usually prepare for your call with the hiring manager or HR representative? While you may be tempted to wing it, actually preparing for a reference call can give the person who asked for the reference a much better shot at the job.

One important note: Many companies have changed the rules on what kind of information you can provide about former employees. If the person who requested the reference worked for or with you at your current company, check with your HR department to make sure you understand their latest requirements for employee references before you start.

Once you understand your current company’s rules regarding references, here are some important things to keep in mind when preparing for a reference call:

Be honest

By agreeing to be a reference, the assumption is that you will give a ringing endorsement of a candidate’s skills and abilities. If you start preparing for the call and don’t feel like you can provide a reference that will truly help, it’s better to be honest and let the person know. That way, they can ask someone else who may be able to provide more positive feedback.

Gather important background

To give the most effective endorsement, you need to know as much information about the job as possible and the background of the person you’ll be speaking with. Make sure you fully understand the following:

  • Job details and related experience and accomplishments
    Ask the person who requested the reference for the job description and a brief write up of how their experience, accomplishments and skills fit the bill. Have them explain what differentiates them from other job candidates for the position.
  • Prep for multiple audiences
    Are you speaking with the direct hiring manager? An HR recruiter? A potential colleague? While you may not know this before the call, it’s good to be prepared for different kinds of questions depending on who is on the other end of the phone or screen. For example, a direct hiring manager may want more specific details about accomplishments while a colleague may be more interested in how the person works with team members. Make sure you think about these multiple perspectives regardless of who you speak with as they may come up in any case.

Prepare your feedback and write them down

Now it’s time to take the information you gathered and put it into tightly worded statements. Be prepared to succinctly explain the primary elements of most reference calls–your relationship with the candidate, their responsibilities and your experience with them. It’s helpful to write down your responses and have them in front of you so that you don’t go off track. Remember the caller will likely speak with several people about the role, so highlight the most important info in less vs. more words.

  • Your relationship with the candidate
    Did they report directly to you? Were they a team member who collaborated on an important project? A mentor from another department? Establish your connection to them, in what capacity you worked with them and for how long.
  • The candidates’ relevant responsibilities and your experience with them
    Specifically, make sure you cover the experiences that are most relevant to this potential new job. Give only the strongest examples of skills and accomplishments that make them the right fit for this new role. Additionally, express how they stood out from the rest of the employees—what was noteworthy about their work and skills? How did they work with you and team members?

Close strong

When the conversation wraps up, make a short strong statement about why you feel the candidate will be a good fit for the role—and offer to provide additional information if needed. People often remember the last thing that is said so make it count!

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Reference calls can make or break a potential candidate’s chances for a new job. Whether you’re new to reference calls or an old hand, we hope these tips make it easier for you to prep and communicate the value your former employee or colleague brings to the table—and to help them make that next important career step.

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