I recently received a voicemail literally out of the blue from a former colleague. When I later listened to the message, I learned she was calling to do a reference check for a person she was looking to hire for a position in her department and that I had been listed as one of this person’s references. Here’s the rub: I had no idea this person was job searching nor that I was being listed as one of their references. In fact, I haven’t had contact with this person since I left my previous institution.

So, as I pondered the what feedback I should give both the potential employer as well as the person who listed me without my knowledge… I thought, what a fantastic topic for a blog post. As we enter job-seeking season in student affairs, here’s some words of advice to all those would-be job applicants on listing references.

Always ASK before listing someone as a reference: Given my recent experience, my first words of advice are not surprisingly: ask first. As a candidate, you never want your references to be (as I was) caught off guard by the potential employer’s call. You ALWAYS ask, because you NEVER want the first words out of your references mouth to be “I didn’t know he/she was listing me as a reference.” As an employer who has made reference calls, this would always signal a red flag and at a minimum would start the reference check off on an awkward note.

Ask if they’ll be a POSITIVE reference: When you request that they serve as a reference, you should specifically ask if the person would be a POSITIVE reference for you. If there’s any question or hesitation, you should obviously not select them. You only want people who will literally gush about how fabulous you are. If you don’t have people who will do this for you… then you need to cultivate new references (that’s definitely another future blog post).

Ask (again) every time you apply for subsequent positions: Each time you apply for a job, reconnect with your references to ensure that they are still available (and have the same contact information). Never assume that they’re still in a place to serve as a reference for you. Once I serve as a reference for someone, I’m more than happy to do so continuously, but I like to know when a new application has gone out.

Provide information about yourself and the job so the reference can speak to your abilities and strengths: I always ask people for whom I’m serving as a reference to give me a copy of the job description, their resume (or other application materials) and a few words about why they are interested in and would be effective at the position. I also ask about what excites them most about the position. If as a job applicant, if you are not in a position to meet with the individual (at least by phone), a quick email note helps significantly when the potential employer asks about your strengths and enthusiasm for the position.

Give them a “Heads Up” notification that they’ll likely receive a call: After you’ve completed an on-campus interview (a natural point when employers check references) send a quick note to your references so they know that they might expect a call soon. This is definitely a courtesy, but a necessary step so (again) your references aren’t caught off guard and can be prepared to speak highly of you.

Follow up with your references after the process concludes: This is obvious, but an important step… let your references know the outcome of the search. If you weren’t offered (or didn’t accept) the position, let you references know. This also provides an opportunity for you to thank your references. These individuals provided you an important service in your professional path to a new position. Don’t forget to thank them for their time.

Others may have different preferences on how they’d like to be treated as one of your references, so as with any relationship, be sure to talk about expectations. If you’ve served as a reference, what other suggestions would you add to this list? Let’s continue the conversation and provide ongoing professional development.