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References are a slam dunk. These are people who will sing your praises, people you can depend on, people who will say whatever it takes to help you. By the time employers are calling references, you've made it and you're starting to prepare your letter of resignation. But not so fast.

Underestimating the reference process is a common mistake people make, at all stages in their careers. From putting references directly on a résumé (no) to handing out reference lists randomly (no, no!), compromising the validity and integrity of your references can greatly diminish your chance of landing the role – especially if the employer is checking more than one candidate's references.

A reference list is private and personal and it holds private, personal information, including contact details, titles, your relationship with the person, etc. References are intended to speak highly of you, in a thoughtful and intelligent way, complete with knowledge about how you work and what you have done.

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They will validate what the employer already knows, but may also uncover information that was not discussed in interviews.

The people on your list are an essential part of your personal marketing plan – so give it the attention and care it deserves.

Gather an inclusive list

Make sure your master list includes a variety of people and relationships, such as managers, co-workers and subordinates. List different industries, roles and markets if you can. Make sure these are people who can talk intelligently about the work you do and what you are like to work with. They should be able to answer all questions thoughtfully, with as much detail as possible.

Provide a useful list to the employer

Nothing upsets an employer more when doing a reference check than when the people on the list are unable to answer questions because they either have not worked with you recently or haven't worked with you in the capacity that you are being considered for. Make it easy on the employer, and yourself, by providing relevant references.

For example, if you are being interviewed for a procurement specialist role, include the name of a supplier you worked with, or a co-worker that you worked on a project with. And skip the character references (friends you have not worked with). They are rarely called. Make sure your list includes the reference's name, title, company, phone number and e-mail address. Do not include mailing addresses. And, most importantly, add one sentence explaining how you know this person.

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Inform your references

Tell your references that you provided their name and contact details for a job opportunity. Tell them who will be calling and what that person's title/relationship is to the job. Do this each time you provide someone with their contact information. Nothing irritates a reference more (especially me) than an unexpected reference-check phone call. It looks equally bad when your reference starts asking for clarity on whom the employer is calling about and for what role.

Prep your references

Tell your references what you want them to say. Do not make your reference do any work. Send them talking points – things you know the employer may ask because they came up in the interview process more than once. Refresh your reference's memory on what a terrific employee and colleague you are/were. Send them the job posting you are being considered for. Make everything as easy as possible for your references.

Follow-up with your references

If your reference was called, find out what questions were asked and what the answers were.

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You may be surprised by some of the responses, especially if you believed him or her to be an excellent reference. If you have not heard from your references, call them to see if they were reached by the employer and, again, ask them how they answered the questions.

This is a good way to assess whether to use these references again, or to seek out others.

Stay on guard throughout the reference process to ensure nothing compromises the professionalism you have illustrated thus far. Your references are an extension of you and the last step before landing that job offer. This is not the time to rest easy or stand down – if anything, it is the time to concentrate on this final, crucial detail that will make or break the interview process.

Calgary-based Eileen Dooley, vice-president of VF Career Management, is a career-transition specialist.

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