5 Tips for Being a Good Reference 

Concentrate on what you know about the person’s character and attributes—and whether he or she would be a fit culturally for the job. 
by Cheryl Meyer 
Published June 15, 2016

Here are two common scenarios that young CPAs often face:

  1. Your best friend from college, Joe the CPA, has interviewed for a job and asks you to be a reference.
  2. A current work colleague asks you to be a reference for a new job that he or she is trying to land.

Sounds easy enough, right? Not so fast. What happens if you don’t know enough about Joe’s work habits—since you only attended college together—or you’re not sure if your colleague is qualified for the new job?

“As a reference you have to sell that person,” noted Jennifer Sides, human resources manager at Anders CPA + Advisors, a public accounting firm in St. Louis. But that can be tough if you’ve never actually supervised the person in question.

Nevertheless, you still may be able to help and add value to this process. Simply concentrate on what you know about the person’s character, attributes, and whether he or she would be a fit, culturally, for the job.

David Mandrycky, director of human resources for Insero & Co. CPAs PC in Rochester, N.Y., typically likes to contact applicants’ supervisors or professors when conducting reference checks. “But peers can vouch for your strength, work aptitude, and work ethic,” he added.

Sides and Mandrycky offered the following tips for acting as a reference for a colleague or friend:

Be responsive. The interview process is usually near completion by the time references are called, so the quickness of a reference’s response can be critical. “If you are up against multiple candidates, you want your references to follow through promptly,” Mandrycky said.

Don’t be a reference if you can’t contribute or have doubts. If you tackled projects together in college or on the job, you may be able to provide valuable insight. But if you were just a dorm suitemate or just sit in a nearby cubicle at work, you likely won't make a good reference for the job candidate. Also, avoid being a reference “if you don't feel comfortable with their work ethic or professionalism or do not think they will be the right fit for the company,” Mandrycky said.

Make a list of their strengths. You should paint an accurate, but positive, picture of your friend or colleague who is vying for the job. Does he or she go above and beyond? Is he or she a great motivator? Does he or she have a knack for fundraising? Is he or she creative? “From the accounting point of view, we want to know if they will have attention to detail, strong communication skills, and are able to manage and juggle multiple priorities,” Mandrycky said.

Provide detailed examples. If your friend is good at fundraising, what has he or she done to successfully raise money? If he or she collaborates well with others or is a good leader, provide examples. “I need to hear a story,” Mandrycky said. “How do you know the person and what stands out? What is unique about them? Would you want this person on your team? That’s what I want to know.”

Be honest but not too negative. Most savvy interviewers will ask references to list weaknesses as well, so be candid, but not overly gloom and doom. If you identify a weakness, Sides said, don’t go into great detail; touch on it with honesty and move on.

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California.

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