Are reference letters valuable?

Q: Do reference letters work when it comes to verifying old references? I have several old reference letters from former managers who have retired or moved away. Are these helpful? I have been told from some that they are helpful but others say they are useless. Some of these letters date back to 20 or more years ago.

A: Reference letters from 20 or more years ago are probably fun to read and give you the opportunity to reminisce and recollect moments from the earlier stages of your career. However, they probably are not all that valuable to a job search in 2009 or 2010.
Most employers want the most current data available on a candidate. This may include recent professional references. The best references are from those individuals who can provide practical and useful information on your skill set, your work style, your strengths and weaknesses, your ability to work independently or in a team and other more job specific attributes.
One question that I frequently receive on references is who? By that I mean, who should I provide as a reference? First, it is very important to maintain a healthy, active and positive network of professionals for references (as well as current and future job search contacts).
Second, professional references should be provided. Personal references usually are less helpful. Personal references are those contacts that may know you on a personal basis but have limited knowledge of your professional abilities. Examples of personal references could include friends, siblings or neighbors. Professional references can attest to your work-related skills and abilities. Professional references may include supervisors, managers, former clients, colleagues, co-workers or other types of business contacts. And while you should maintain a “core” list of professional references, your list of references may need to be tailored based on the job requirements.
Third, make it easy! Make it easy for a recruiter or hiring manager to check your references. Have a list of professional references ready and waiting (the list might need an edit or tweak but have it ready and waiting).
Fourth, in response to “who can I give if I am currently working and I can’t give my boss?” Think about colleagues, vendors, co-workers and former managers or former supervisors. Most recruiters and hiring managers understand that you can not provide your direct supervisor or manager if you are currently employed.
Fifth, talk to your references BEFORE an employer or recruiter calls them. Why? You want to ensure that they are available and you have the correct contact information for them. I would also recommend that you thank them in advance for taking the time to provide a reference on your behalf. You may also need to coach them a bit – on what should be an area of focus (perhaps your technical skills or a certain attribute that has been stressed during the selection process).
Lastly, send an email, place a quick call or jot a short note wit the intent of thanking your reference if they have taken the time to speak to a reference on your behalf. It is yet another way to maintain a positive and vibrant network of professional contacts.

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