I tend to really enjoy the job-application process. I have a well-made résumé, and have no problem churning out cover letters. I like going on interviews and have a pretty good grasp on how to sell myself to an employer. I have a lot to say about past academic and professional experiences. I never forget to ask insightful questions about the company and the position before leaving. It is a process I have fun with, up until they ask for my professional reference list.
I’ve always kind of struggled in figuring out professional reference ideas when applying for jobs. Obviously, it shouldn’t be my mother (although I’m sure she’d give me a glowing recommendation — she did create me, after all), and it definitely shouldn’t be the sleazy boss I had at my first job who aggressively pressured his very-underage employees into drinking alcohol at the office Christmas party, prompting me to quit without giving notice (true story).
So who should it be?
It is easy to fall into the trap of believing the only suitable references are past bosses and supervisors. But the truth is, there are a lot more people who can make great job references, and even help support your case as a potential employee better by showing your full range of unique skills. Here are the five people to help you figure out who to use as references besides your boss.
1. The mother you babysit for.
I spent a lot of time post-nannying job wondering why I wasted so much time on a job that didn’t even give me a good reference. But I quickly found out that leaving nanny positions off my résumé and leaving the mothers I worked for off of my reference list was leaving a huge gap in my employment history, and doing me a disservice. Working consistently as a caregiver for someone’s children — arguably the most important thing in their lives — shows a lot about what type of person you are. Having a three-year-long nanny gig shows reliability, trustworthiness, and an insane work ethic — I mean, you professionally mothered someone’s children when they couldn’t be around. If that person isn’t going to give you an amazing recommendation, I don’t know who else will.
2. A family member or friend, if you’ve worked for them.
Can a family member be a professional reference? Well, sometimes. The loophole to the “don’t list friends and family as references” is this: if you do freelance design work for your friend’s startup business, or worked long days answering phones at your dad’s law firm, they actually might be an excellent person to vouch for your capabilities to be an effective employee. My brother spent every day for a few consecutive summers working his ass off doing manual labor for my dad’s building company. He’d be silly to leave that out of the picture, and avoid using my dad — the founder and owner of his own business — as a reference. He’s seen his work ethic firsthand, and the truth is, flesh and blood aside, no parent would hire their kid to work at their company if they didn’t think they were capable. (Example: my dad never once asked me if I would work for his company — obviously.)
3. Your coworker, even if they’re your pal.
If you worked for seven years at the same mall store with coworkers who became your best friends, one of them still might be an amazing person to use as a reference. The fact that you worked side-by-side with them every day, and even became their friend in the process, shows that you are a positive addition to a work environment. Let’s be real — the people who come into an organization and don’t pull their weight don’t make friends. The ones who work hard, gain respect, and form relationships within their company are noticed, and if you were one of those, your coworker-turned-friend will definitely have something great to say about your work ethic.
4. Your professor.
Although you don’t always form close relationships with teachers and professors, (especially if you go to a huge university), there are certain times where your professor can be one of the best references on your list. I, for example, have a professor from my department who has taught four of my classes over the past few years, and they were small, intimate classes where we got to know each other really well. She’s seen my growth since freshman year, she’s seen me display a wide variety of skills, and she’s gotten a front-row seat to my work ethic in the classroom. To be honest, the professor who taught you the skills you are now using to get a job is the best primary source to vouch for you when applying for a job. Use that to your advantage — they would be more than happy to help one of their students succeed.
5. A classmate who worked on a huge project with you.
In the communication department, almost all of our work is group work. Although it is not every person’s favorite thing to work in a group on every assignment, it makes for a highly effective communication environment, and also some really close personal and professional bonds. I know off the top of my head and could list in seconds the classmates I’ve worked on projects with who are skilled, capable, and reliable work partners. I know exactly the group of students I’d put on my team if I were starting a business and needed to hire from my graduating class. The people you have worked hard with, pulled long hours in study rooms with, and created something tangible that you’ve received an A+ on with are definitely people who can tell your potential employer exactly what you bring to the table, and exactly why they should hire you.
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