6 Ways to Find the References You Need

In this period of remote-work, firms are putting much more emphasis on job references that candidates tend to blow off.

After successfully navigating several rounds of interviews, the job is nearly yours. All that’s left is to supply a few references. Any three names who will say nice things about you should do, right?

Not in the pandemic era. While job candidates meticulously strategize their job searches and put a ton of effort into resumes and job-interview preparation, they tend to put perfunctory thought into whom they will use as references. But with in-person interviews still rare in most cases, HR experts need to rely on other means to do strong vetting. “There’s no better way to get direct input on someone than from a reference,” says George Atkinson, a Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Human Resources Center of Expertise.

Not unlike the way your resume and cover letter tell a story, so too should your references, says Caroline Werner, Korn Ferry’s senior vice president for global talent. “It’s not about just saying good things, it’s about saying appropriate things for the role,” she says. If the role is more global in nature, for instance, or at a company that just went through a merger, you will want to prepare your reference to talk about your experience in those areas.

That’s one tip from our experts. Here are six more ways you can land a job by being more strategic with references.

Find mutual connections.

LinkedIn profiles let people know the connections they have in common. Use them. That’s what your LinkedIn network is for, after all, says Atkinson. The one caveat, however, is to be sure the connection is real. People often blindly connect with each other on LinkedIn, so if you use a mutual connection as a reference, double-check that the person making the hiring decision has a real relationship with them.

Match reference to role.

Roughly 60% of people who lost their job during the pandemic have or are looking to switch careers. It’s safe to say a significantly smaller percentage of those people have references in the jobs or industries they are trying to switch to. But, says Werner, that doesn’t mean someone who only knows you as a salesperson can’t help you get a job in digital marketing. “Use references who can speak to your transferable skills,” she says. If the new role is with a start-up, for instance, a reference who can illustrate your agility in juggling multiple tasks could certainly help. Your creativity in closing sales, for example, could be useful in developing personalized marketing messages.


In this case, we are speaking more along the lines of business relationships than ethnic or racial diversity. Or, as Werner says, “Use your references to demonstrate the diverse relationships you have developed and kept during your career.” Don’t just use your last three former managers. Maybe a junior employee you managed might be better if the new role requires managing a young team, for instance. That said, also keep in mind that supplying only references that fit your demographic profile could send the wrong message to the hiring manager.

Personal connections matter.

Job candidates tend to think of references solely in a professional context, meaning people they have worked for or with. But personal connections can serve as valuable references as well, particularly as emotional intelligence, soft skills, and purpose factor more heavily into hiring decisions. Teachers, community contacts, or people you volunteer with may be better than professional colleagues to connect your interpersonal skills, traits, and characteristics to the personality needed for the role or the company’s mission.

Refresh your list.

Experts say one common mistake job candidates make is using the same references over and over again. Even though you may still be close, a former manager from 10 years ago may not be a valid reference anymore. In fact, it may prompt the hiring manager to question why there aren’t more “current former bosses,” says Val Olson, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. Relatedly, it’s not a bad idea to have different lists for different jobs, tailoring references to the particular industry, company, or needs of the role.

Get their references.

Atkinson emphasizes that asking for references is a two-way street. “If you are serious about a job, you owe it to yourself to talk to as many people as possible about the company and the person you are going to work for,” says Atkinson. He says he’s amazed by how many job candidates get into bad situations because they didn’t do the research on the manager or company they were going to work for. “You have to know what you’re getting into,” he says.