Typically, when you get to the stage in the interviewing process where a hiring company asks for references, you are very close to getting the job.
All that stands between you and a job offer may be a couple of good references.
Unfortunately, many job offers are killed at this stage of the hiring process.
Sometimes the "Reference Check" is the tipping point in the hiring manager's decision process. You may be in a virtual tie for the job with someone else, and references may differentiate the two of you.
Bad feedback from a reference could make the company rethink their opinion of you.
Your references are a very important part of the process, so you must be extremely careful how you select and prepare them.
In most cases, hiring managers and recruiters will be asking for supervisors as references. They may also ask for direct reports if you are a manager.
In addition, they may ask for personal references from colleagues who you worked with at other companies (perhaps as their project liaison, salesperson, or consultant).
Peers' opinions tend to carry less weight, as these references tend to be friends who are biased and may offer very little about your professional attributes (like following directions, problem-solving, creative thinking).
With this in mind...
Select former supervisors who know you well. Clearly, you need to have had some key accomplishments within their organization.
If you only worked for the person for a short time, they will have less to offer the background checker. Unfortunately, providing little feedback gives the impression that there is little to say that is good about you, and the assumption made is they have plenty to say about you that is bad.
If you have no way of finding your past supervisor, you might try another supervisor at that company who was able to observe your work. You'll need to explain why you're unable to contact your direct supervisor.
I recommend you keep tabs on former bosses because someday you'll want to use them as references.
Be prepared for a background checker to ask for one more than you provided in your list of references. Sometimes they want to "catch you off guard" and have you provide a reference who's not been prepped in the past. And some will even pick one for you (and/or ask for a manager at a particular job).
The days of adding "References Available Upon Request" to your resume are over, in my opinion. Anyone reading your resume already knows this.
I do not recommend including references on a resume because then you do not control the timing of the reference checking process.
You need to know when references are being contacted so you can prepare them for the call.
You may also want to rotate your references if you think you are overburdening one of them with too many calls.
I counsel my hiring companies to only call (or have me call) references when they are serious. There is no reason to call references when they haven't yet met the candidate.
Another reason to limit access to your list of references is that you might want different references depending on the job you have applied for.
Different references may have different levels of credibility and authority in different industries, professions, or, even, in different locations, so carefully selecting the references for a specific employer or situation may increase the probability of landing that job.
Ask the background checker for the name and job title of the person who will be calling. Then, ask for a few hours before they start contacting your references so you can ensure that they are available and also that they know they have your permission to speak with this person about you.
This gives you time to alert the references on your list to anticipate a call and confirm that they are available.
Not everyone answers the phone these days when a strange name/number shows up on caller ID. So being able to share this information makes it more likely that the call will be answered and the response provided quickly.
This requested delay also allows you to talk with your references about the company that will be calling and the position.
For those of you who have references and endorsements on LinkedIn, keep in mind that...
Your LinkedIn references may be asked questions about you without notifying you first or asking your permission.
Make sure to remind the people who have given you LinkedIn references when you're on a job hunt in case they are contacted (those giving endorsements might be too much to manage).
References play a key role in your job search process. Most references can do a great job of representing you, but only if you choose them wisely and keep them informed.
Job-Hunt's Working with Recruiters Expert Jeff Lipschultz is a 20+ year veteran in management, hiring, and recruiting of all types of business and technical professionals. He has worked in industries ranging from telecom to transportation to dotcom. Jeff is a founding partner of A-List Solutions, a Dallas-based recruiting and employment consulting company. Learn more about him through his company site alistsolutions.com. Follow Jeff on LinkedIn and on Twitter (@JLipschultz).