For the transitioning veteran, assembling references can be the hardest part of an application.
Job references are vital to the veteran applying for civilian jobs because they help an employer discern what an applicant’s military skills and achievements mean for the civilian world. Here are six guidelines to follow when securing references for job applications.
1. Understand what a reference is.
“References” mean either: a person who can confirm the details of your resume, or a letter from such a person that puts those details in writing. If an application does not ask for written references, expect the employer to call your references directly. But even if provided a written reference, and employer may still call and talk to the person who wrote it.
Employers expect you to have references whenever they ask you for them, so have the following ready to provide at a moment’s notice: the name, title, current position, phone number, email, and address of each reference. Keep that information in an email for quick online access and bring a (short) letter with that information with you to append to a resume or provide at an interviews.
2. Figure out what qualifications you will need your references to confirm.
Your military experience will generally determine what qualifications you need to demonstrate in job applications. For example, if your military experience is in communications networks, the jobs you apply for are typically going to center on network and communications, and therefore your references (as well as your cover letter and your resume) should display your breadth of experience in communications network.
A good technique is to look at the job postings for a variety of positions similar to the one you’re applying for and find common requirements. That way you know what your references should emphasize about you.
3. Ask for references from people who can creditably attest to your qualifications.
The most important rule about references is that you need to ask a person before you list them as a reference. Nobody likes a cold call from a civilian asking them about someone they haven’t seen in a while.
The second most important rule is to make sure your references are creditable, so while it’s tempting to list family members or buddies as your references, remember that employers want to know more than how awesome you are. They want to know technical details of your training, your experience, and most of all your achievements–all from a creditable source (i.e. one that can compare you to other people in the same position). That is usually a commander, or a senior NCO with a lot of technical expertise.
Because veterans usually have a variety of qualifications, a good reference will have seen you in your occupational specialty and in a leadership or administrative role. It’s best to have a reference from at least one person who was your boss and at least one person who was your peer. The peer is perhaps the trickiest–you want someone who will speak highly of you, but who also has credibility.
4. If possible, get your references before you’ve left the military.
Often your easiest, if not only, way of contacting former commanders and peers is through military email. So as you wind down your service, spend a few extra hours at work tracking down the best references and asking them if they would speak to possible employers for you.
Also, make sure you have all the data you need: current work phone number, current position and/or title, and current work address. Ask if they’re getting ready to PCS (or PCA). Social media makes staying in touch easier, so it’s a good idea to become ‘friends’ with references on social media. If you’re applying for a job a year or two after transition, you can then easily figure out where they are and update your information.
5. Let your references know what to say about you.
This is most applicable when it comes to written references. In a conversation, a civilian employer will likely ask directed questions in order to assess your qualifications. But if your prospective employer is only going to read references, you don’t want too much military terminology to make your application confusing, which may make the employer pass on to the next person who has more readable references.
When you ask for a written reference, tell the writer what you need upfront so you won’t have to ask for a second draft (awkward, when they’re doing something nice for you) or end up stuck with a reference you can’t use.
One technique is to write a list of qualifications to emphasize, and send that to your reference via email as an outline of the reference you want them to write. In some cases, as when you ask for a recommendation from a senior officer or SNCO, you should just go ahead and write your own reference and send it to them in an editable computer document. This is actually a big help because they have limited time to spend on a transitioning veteran and they probably don’t know what you need them to say. Let them know your intentions by saying something like, “to save you time, I wrote a basic reference that you can edit if that’s more convenient.” They’ll either use what you wrote, or make sure what they write emphasizes the right qualifications.
6. Warn your references if they’re going to be called.
If you get an idea that a prospective employer is going to call one of your references, let that reference know. Also, use the “requirements” section of the job posting to tell them what the employer will ask. Don’t expect your reference to do research on your behalf, either–he/she should have to go to the job posting to figure out how to make you look like the right candidate. And don’t be afraid to ask you references to talk about certain things: “if you can, please tell the employer about XYZ event” is a legitimate request and helps your reference recall your shared history.
Veterans are usually reluctant to seek references because in the military, there’s a culture of letting your performance speak for itself. Asking someone else to say nice things about you, or (horror!) writing nice things about yourself and asking someone to say them, smacks of self-promotion. But realize that the rules have changed: your prospective employers need information about you; and your references may not know how to communicate that. So prepare your references carefully, courteously, and tactfully.