Ten tips for managing your referee reports

Obtaining applicants’ referee reports remains a popular pre-employment procedure for screening job candidates. Reference checks are generally used for three purposes:

  • To verify information provided by applicants during other selection processes such as the interview.
  • To serve as a basis for predicting job success.
  • To unearth background information that may not have come to light during other processes.

For information to be useful, referees must:

  • Have had the opportunity to observe the applicant in relevant situations.
  • Be competent to make the evaluations requested and be willing to give honest assessments.
  • Be able to express themselves so their comments can be understood as intended.
  • While referee reports assist in selection, they do not in themselves determine the selection decision.

That said, what can you do to manage your referees to give you the best result?


Ask your referees if they are willing to speak on your behalf. Do not assume that just because a person is your manager that they should or will. It is embarrassing to be rung by a selection panel member and told you are a referee when the applicant had not even mentioned they were applying for a job. So exercise this courtesy of asking.

Also, exercise the courtesy of thanking them afterwards, regardless of whether they provided a reference and what the result of the process was.

Provide information

Help your referee by providing information about the job you are applying for and a summary of what you have done. You could also provide a copy of your application so that your referee is reminded of the full range of your achievements.


Discuss the job with your referee and what they might be willing to say. This helps avoid any embarrassment arising from your referee providing any negative information. Better to be forewarned than to find out later.

Explain selection criteria

If your referee is outside the public service explain to them what selection criteria are, their role in the selection process, and how the referee must focus on them in their comments.

Choose your supervisor

Your immediate supervisor or manager should be one of your referees. Selection panels prefer to speak to this person to gain an idea of your past performance. For this person to support you they should ideally have at least 9 to 12 months experience of your work during the last 2 years.

Advise difficulties

If there are any difficulties with contacting your referees, particularly if you are in the private sector, let the selection panel know so they can contact you before they make any calls to your boss.


If you are applying for a promotion make sure your referee understands this and the requirements of working at the higher level. Their role is to comment on your abilities at that higher level, not in the job you are currently doing.

Are they contactable?

When you nominate a referee make sure they are contactable during the selection period. Are they going on leave or travelling, making them difficult to contact? Also provide both a landline and mobile number. Panels may feel more comfortable going through a switchboard or calling the office as this gives more assurance that the person being called is a genuine referee.

Think ahead

Take a strategic approach to your referees. Think ahead and develop relationships with a wide range of people who could speak on your behalf – colleagues, senior managers, clients, stakeholders, suppliers, subordinates. People in other contexts such as community organisations, may also be potential candidates.

Think about the questions referees are likely to be asked and reflect on what you are doing to help your referees respond positively. Questions they could be asked include:

  • How well does this person interact with team members?
  • What do you regard as the applicant’s strengths? Weaknesses?
  • How would you rate their interpersonal skills?
  • Give an example of a time when they have shown initiative.
  • How well do they work under pressure?
  • Would you hire this person again?
Keep in touch

Your referees may move around. Consider keeping in touch with key ones so you know where they are and they know what you are doing. You never know when you may need to call on these people to support your case.

What skills do you need to manage your referees? Key ones are:

  • Relationship building
  • Networking
  • Influencing
  • Reflection
Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.