The most important things to note about reference lists are: (1) that they are a must, and (2) they can serve important purposes beyond merely indicating who your references are and how to contact them.
Order of Presentation
The order in which you list your references is important. Employers are almost always going to contact the reference at the top of the list first, then work their way down. Don’t save your best reference for last; lead with your best shot. Frequently, the employer will be so impressed with the first reference on your list that s/he will not bother to contact the others.
Determining your best reference is not always obvious. You need to balance your sense of who is likely to be your best endorser against your assessment of who the employer believes s/he needs to speak to first. If you get the sense that a prospective employer is primarily concerned with speaking to your current of former employer, then someone else better be pretty spectacular to supersede the employer’s preference.
Number of Reference Lists
You need not confine yourself to only one reference list. Certain references may do you more good for some employers than for others. Try to tailor your reference lists to specific positions, employers, industries, and employment sectors.
Reference List Elements
A good—and compelling—reference list should contain the following elements in brief:
• name, position title, and organization of your reference;
• your relationship to the reference/why this person is your reference;
• ideally, something that you did vis-a-vis the reference that shows you in a positive light; and
• contact information (where, when, and how).
This kind of reference list can give your candidacy a big boost because it underscores for the new employer both your thoroughness and forethought as well as your organizational skills. In addition, if you are able to include something that you did with or for the reference, you also gain an opportunity to have some positive control over the communication between the employer and your reference.
“I see that Connie Candidate advised and assisted you with the acquisition of Hermann Amalgamated.” Hearing that, what do you think the employer and reference are going to discuss?
This approach aims the employer, and the reference, in the direction you want them to go. “Aiming” can also mitigate an unavoidable reference who is likely to be lukewarm or worse. If you cannot avoid including someone like this, such as the name of a supervisor who terminated you from employment, one way to ease your apprehension about what s/he will say (even if you were promised a “fair” reference) is to include an accomplishment or other positive event during that employment on your reference list so that you “control” the topical discussion. For example: I reported to Mr. Bloodsucker during my tenure with Evil, Vicious & Mean. He named me chief negotiator in more than 20 major commercial finance transactions the firm successfully completed.