In early October, as I was sitting on an employer summit panel for Fleet Week at the Marine Memorial Hotel, a question circulated the room about employer references. A commander stood and asked if it was a good idea for transitioning service members to provide references from their military past, and if so, who should they list? The plain and simple answer is that veterans should absolutely list colleagues and superiors from their time in the military as references.
Providing references to hiring managers speaks to your credibility at the start of the hiring process and shows that you have faith in your past performance. It also helps employers know that they can cross-check you work history without issue. This also provides another way for potential employers to understand your military work history by asking questions about your roles and responsibilities. Having references can provide insight into a military background that isn’t completely revealing to a civilian employer. The references, if listed properly, should speak to the abilities and character of the candidate.
While there is no set rule about who should be listed, I generally say to list at least one individual from your chain of command who knows you well and will speak favorably, and honestly, on your behalf. Depending on your employer, this may need to be someone from your most recent assignment.
Your reference list should also include a professional that knows you as a peer in your field. If you are not applying for a role related to the career field that you have been in, this does not mean that the person you select cannot or should not be listed as a reference. This person should know you on a personal level by your day-to-day work ethic and be able to speak to your less conspicuous traits, like your soft business sills.
The third reference should be someone who knows you through hobbies or other professional involvement. This could be the individual who leads the First Sergeant Council that you are a part of, or the Company Grade Officer president. Outside the military, this could be a leader from your church or some philanthropic involvement. The ideal person for the listing is someone who knows about your professional nature and reliability as core traits.
Each of the people you select should be able to speak to your demeanor, work-ethic, professionalism, self-presentation, and how you perform day-to-day tasks and large scale projects (or how they would assume you would).
Unless it is understood from their track-record that your references will not be caught off-guard when answering, and will speak in a professional way about your background, I would recommend asking and informing the people you select before submitting the list. You should not need to prep these individuals, but let them know that they may be contacted for an important step in your future, and ask them to outline your traits to their best of their ability. Doing that will give them time to prepare and prevent them from feeling caught off guard. It will also help ensure they return voicemails and confirm the legitimacy of your work history.
For the military leaders out there, I recommend that you suggest to your men and women that they have references ready upon transition time, and offer yourself as a reference for the process. Tell them that you will speak candidly and not hide faults if asked about them. Be willing to provide letters of recommendation for those who deserve them.