References: 5 Ways to Make Them Impactful

Instead of a ‘check the box’ exercise, experts say candidates should pay close attention to the references they provide

Most candidates think of providing references as merely a formality. But in today’s fiercely competitive market, where experts say it is taking candidates two to three times longer than usual to land a role, an ineffective reference can be damaging.

Instead of a “check the box” exercise, references represent one last opportunity to shine in the eyes of a recruiter or hiring manager. Juliana Barela, vice president and general manager of Korn Ferry’s Recruitment Process Outsourcing practice in North America, says references can be as important in the application process as technical skills. “I’m listening as much to what they don’t say as to what they do,” she says.

Barela says while candidates are being strategic about selecting references—such as matching them to the role, seeking a broad cross-section of people, or taking advantage of a mutual connection—those references often don’t fill in gaps, reinforce credentials, or answer the key questions of recruiters or hiring managers. “The more detailed and specific references can be in painting that picture, the more help they are to the candidate,” says Barela. Below, our experts share some ways candidates and references can work together to have the most impact.

Share the job description.

It’s so simple that it’s often overlooked, but sharing the job description goes a long way. Sondra Levitt, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach, advises clients to walk references through the job description, highlighting why you are attracted to the role, how your skills and experience align with what is needed, and where you can have impact.

Talk beyond the role.

If talks advance to the point of checking references, the candidate likely already meets the job’s requirements. At that point, what recruiters and hiring managers want to know is how well you understand the business, what kind of leadership and other skills you can bring to the role, and how well you fit in with the team. If the company culture is remote, how will it affect your performance, and vice versa? With leaders focused on rebuilding culture and companies focused on the idea of purpose, “it is important for references to talk about what about the company and culture beyond the role excites you,” says Barela.

Emilie Petrone, vice chairman in the Global Human Resources practice at Korn Ferry, says it’s also important for references to think and talk beyond their own view of the candidate. “How the broader team and organization views the candidate is just as important as their own view,” says Petrone.

Details matter.

References are most effective when they have enough of a relationship with a candidate to offer real-world examples of how they dealt with a client matter, exhibited leadership qualities, or generated results. “Bringing specific anecdotes into the equation is really important,” says Levitt. She tells references to think of the C.A.R. method when illustrating a candidate’s skills or contribution—describe the Context, the Actions the candidate took, and the Results.

Bridge the gaps.

Many people apply for jobs for which they don’t meet all the requirements, hoping they can overcome any skill or knowledge gaps in the interview process, or through training and sheer ambition. That’s where references can be most helpful. Recruiters and hiring managers know job listings are portraits of the perfect candidate, and that not everyone is perfect. Barela says references that can show how, for instance, a candidate leveraged their regional experience for a global role can help instill confidence about taking a risk. “Maybe it’s showing how you pulled a cross-functional team together or an example of your inclusiveness that can fill that gap,” she says. Barela adds that it is important for candidates to prep references on gaps recruiters may ask about so they can think ahead of time on ways to address them.

Reframe weaknesses.

Every reference will be asked about your weaknesses or areas in need of development. While it seems like a basic question, their response could raise red flags. References should obviously steer away from particular skills or knowledge gaps. But if they’re going to discuss your struggles with time management, they shouldn’t describe the time you missed a major deadline on a client project. Instead, they can effectively reframe the issue as one of delegating authority, turning it from a weakness into a developmental area the candidate could grow into.


For more expert career advice, connect with a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.