By Catherine McNulty

July 27, 2016 5 min read

Say it's time for a new job but you're still punching the clock at the old one. You're being discreet, sending out resumes in your off hours, doing phone interviews on your lunch break. But how can you get references from the job you're at for the job you hope to have? Do references even matter?

Generally, the more senior of a position you're applying for the more a reference matters. You need to be aware of the reputation you've left behind at previous employers. So before you ask any person for a reference willy-nilly, think long and hard about the people with whom you've had the best working relationships, the people with whom you've achieved the most professionally.

References are tricky. It's something most prospective employers will ask for but it's also the thing you have the least amount of control over. And know that potential employers aren't limited to the official list you gave them; they can contact any place you've worked at in the past. The good news is that your current job is considered off limits unless you've given permission for them to be contacted. But if you've been working at a job for many years, you may still need a reference from that job.

First you need to check your current company's reference policy. Yes, it's true, most companies have a reference policy, and there are some companies that refuse to give references. If this is the case for you, this doesn't mean all is lost. You may just have to be extra discreet.

Don't forget to research the company you're applying to as well. What kind of culture do they foster? What kind of references would they be looking for? A person who will testify to your ability to multitask won't do much for you if the company you're apply to favors monotasking to perfection.

Remember, before you put anyone down as a reference, you have to ask them first. The worst type of reference isn't a bad one, it's an indifferent one. A bad reference can be framed by you, but how do you explain if the person giving you a reference doesn't remember who you are?

How best to let them know? Email. This gives the person you are asking time to think about your request. If you haven't heard back in a few days, then call to follow up. If someone declines being a reference for you, do not get upset or plead with the person. What kind of reference would that person give you then anyway?

Be prudent when getting your references together. Pick people who will be able to attest to your skills and professionalism. As much as you may want to list your best friends, unless you've worked with them, what they say -- no matter how positive -- won't mean much. You should have previous employers on your reference list. That can be tricky if you don't want your current job to know you're looking for a new job. If you have clients who won't tell your boss, ask them. Ask colleagues whom you've worked with on projects, or instead of a boss, ask a supervisor.

Be aware of whom you ask at your current job. It should go without saying that it needs to be someone you trust. If there isn't anyone you can really trust, don't give up! Think outside the box. Prospective employers love that.

Consider nontraditional references, as well. Are you active in volunteering or other organizations? If you are someone who has put a lot of time and energy into something outside of work, then that could be a reference. This is a unique reference, as it's coming from someone who whom you've worked with without compensation. They can give a different perspective. However, be cautious. The captain of your beer pong team, for example, probably isn't the best reference.

If you're recently out of school, ask a professor you still have a relationship with. Do you have an attorney? He or she could be a reference, as well.

It's never easy finding a new job. Asking people to vouch for you and your skills can be daunting. But when you sit down and list it all out, you'll know more people than you thought. And remember, you may need to be someone else's reference in return.

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