References are often ignored until late in the job search. "I'll get to it when they ask for them, but right now I have more important things to do." Yet properly used, references can be an effective tool toward making your job search even more productive at the outset. Having your references prepared in advance speeds up the final steps of the job search process. References can also be used to further expand potential job opportunities.
Following is the preferred order of sources, in the eyes of a potential employer:
The one major exception to this is when your personal professional acquaintance is also connected with your potential employer. Then that reference goes to the top of your list. Please leave off non-professional personal acquaintances, family members (one candidate I interviewed listed his mother as a reference, saying, "Who would know me better!") and religious acquaintances (five years as an altar boy is not typically considered a measure of employee loyalty).
Ask each of your references to write a letter of recommendation. There are three reasons for this: (1) If they are not willing to serve as a reliable reference, they are unlikely to put forth the time necessary to write the letter of recommendation, (2) You will be able to use it as a ready-made reference to supply to potential employers, and (3) A letter of recommendation is a good way for you to prequalify those who will provide you with the best overall reference.
It is best to allow your references some latitude in developing the letter of recommendation, but for those who are clueless, ask them to follow this format:
This letter should always be typed on the letterhead of the company or institution. Review our Sample Letter of Recommendation as an example of how to impress a potential employer.
Your professional and personal references can also provide you with an excellent opportunity to develop initial company referrals. After they have agreed to serve as your references and provide you with letters of recommendation, ask which are the top five employers in your field they recommend. And ask if there are any personal contacts at the companies to whom they could refer you.
Not only are these people serving your indirect needs as references, they are also serving your more direct needs as referral sources in your new job search network.