Should You Coach Your Job Search References? Absolutely!

I got the following question from a JibberJobber user:

I just talked to one of my references who has now talked to two different recruiters for me. I asked him if he was asked any “stumper” questions and he said that both recruiters asked the same question that he didn’t have a good answer for: “Name a time that XXXX saved money for a client”.

This would appear to be a standard question when asking about someone who’s been a consultant and it never occurred to me to make sure my references had an answer to it.

I asked my partners about this (since I didn’t make it that far in my job search ;)), and Wendy Terwelp, of, responded:

The recruiters may have been trained by Jeff Skretney or another superstar in the staffing industry who trains NATIONWIDE – and this is one of his typical questions he trains recruiters to ask during a reference check.

To answer question, YES. Do coach your references. Provide each of your references with a copy of your resume, so they have a fresh reminder of your background. Give them three options to answer when asked the “money saving” question – be sure they know about the savings personally. For example, “Yes, I remember when Jason saved the client (or company) around $150,000 in shipping costs by using ground instead of air – per year! Our client was ecstatic and increased their orders with us by 10 percent.” or whatever is relevant to the job. By the way, achievements like these should be on the resume.

I also think it’s a great idea to coach your references.  You’ll likely call them anyway, to ask them if they will be a reference for you, right?  In that call you might consider two talking points:

  1. Coach them on your brand. They may have known you as Mary in Accounting, but you want to go into another related field.  Let them know this, and emphasize the aspects of your brand that will help with a reference check.  Isn’t this also referred to as “transferable skills?”
  2. Coach them on specific questions that may be asked. The question above is one example… I did a google search and came up with some other ideas:

Susan Heathfield, Human Resources expert at, wrote Job Search Tip: Prep Your References for a Reference Check, which as some excellent ideas.  Among some obvious questions that I would think of, here are some she suggests (you can get this from her “Reference Checking Format” worksheet for those who check references):

  • How many reporting staff did the candidate manage? Their roles?
  • Tell me about the candidate’s most important contributions to the achievement of your organization’s mission and goals.
  • Describe the candidate’s productivity, commitment to quality and customer orientation.

Best Job has a great article on references in general, and then a list of questions… here are more to consider:

  • What was (candidate’s) reason for leaving your company?
  • Can you tell me (candidate’s) salary at the time of leaving?
  • How would you describe (candidate’s) punctuality?
  • Could you rate (candidate’s) reliability?
  • How would you describe (candidate’s) honesty and integrity?

eHow has a brief article titled How to Ask a Job Reference Questions, Best Job Today has a few more questions to consider in their article Interviewee Reference Questions, and Ellen Heffernan of SJG-The Spelman and Johnson Group has an awesome article, Your References: An Important Part of the Job Search Process.

My biggest question is, with all of these potential questions, how in the world do you coach your reference?  Do you prepare a cheatsheet for them, with questions and answers (not a bad idea), so they can refer back to talking points?

4 thoughts on “Should You Coach Your Job Search References? Absolutely!”

  1. Jason,

    This is a much overlooked aspect of the job hunt. Many don’t even bother to ask references if it is okay to use their names, let alone prepare a cheat sheet!

    Of course, you should provide an up-to-date, well-written resume that highlights your skills and accomplishments for your references. You should keep your references in the loop if you believe their input could help solidify what you have told the employer. I’ve written about my own experience with this:

    I think the bottom line here is to provide the names of references who will care about your search and take the time to offer solid, supportive answers to any questions a recruiter or potential employer asks. You cannot assume that you’ll be able to provide pre-written replies for every possible question, so a person who can think on his or her feet (as one would in an interview) is key. The fact is, if your reference didn’t know you that well or has a tendency to overlook details, you can coach ’til the cows come home, but it probably won’t matter.

    If you select references who “know the drill” and are on your side, you shouldn’t need to go to extremes to be able to expect a solid reference.

    Miriam Salpeter
    Keppie Careers

  2. I think this is a really important piece of job-hunting that frequently gets left out. Most people have a hard enough time remembering what THEY did at a job, let alone trying to remember what YOU did. I think coaching your references is a great way to make sure that your references are prepared and add to your interview.

  3. No one ever remembers to talk to their references first, and the ones who do just say “hey, you might get a call from so and so, talk me up.” That doesn’t cut it anymore. You have no know how that person remembers things as well. It’s kind of like that game from when we were little “telephone”, where you have to tell the next person in line something until it makes it all the way around the room and it’s never the same as you heard. Everyone remembers things differently and always from a different prospective. You may be using the wrong references and it would sure be good to know BEFORE the recruiter or hiring manager talks to them.

  4. Nice feedback gang. Here’s another story, I worked with one client who insisted on using her references from her college resume. Um, she graduated 15 years ago… I said, “No, we’re not using them – until you contact each person and let them know what you’ve been doing over the years…” She called me later in the week and said, “Thank God I listened to you! One of my professors died and he was on my list!” Yeah. Make sure your references are alive AND can say good things.

    And a tip from my friend George, a fellow career expert: Don’t wait 10 years to contact your references! Stay connected regularly and let them know what you’ve been up to – that way they’ll be sure to provide employers with a strong, up-to-date recommendation.

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