Getting hired involves a lot of small victories. The first one comes when someone picks your resume out of the pile and offers you an interview. If you make it through the interviewing process, usually one thing stands between you and getting the job: having your references checked.

That seems like a formality, but a bad reference -- or not having the right references -- could lead to you not getting an offer. However, you can prevent that from happening if you do a little work beforehand.

A man talks on a phone

A reference call can land a job or kill your chances. Image source: Getty Images.

What can you do?

You need to cultivate references before you begin looking for a job. And since you won't know exactly whom you will need on your list, you will want to be prepared for anything.

There are all different kinds of references the hiring company may ask for. Here's an overview of some of the possibilities:

  • A former supervisor: This can be any boss from your past, ideally one who supervised you doing similar work.
  • A peer reference: Any colleague who can speak to what you're like to work with counts.
  • A personal reference: This can be a friend, someone who can speak to what a great person you are.
  • An academic reference: If you are younger, and have limited work experience, a reference from a college professor may be asked for. This can also happen in academic fields.

Most people should have the appropriate people to ask, but it's important to keep in touch with potential references so you're not asking them for a favor out of the blue. In the case of former bosses, old colleagues, or college professors, connecting on social media or even touching base a couple of times a year should suffice.

Be careful

Don't assume someone will give you a reference. Ask before including anyone on your reference list. In addition, be honest with yourself. If a former boss isn't likely to have all positive things to say about you, consider finding someone else.

If possible, make sure that every reference is a sure thing. Only use people you know and trust who will speak highly of you.

Let your references know when they might be contacted. If you don't, they might ignore a phone call or email from a number or name they don't recognize.

It's also acceptable to flat-out ask if a person will speak positively of you. That might make for an uncomfortable situation, but it's better to have the conversation and learn that including someone is not the best idea.

Be ready with references

Formalize your references before you begin applying for a job. Have them on a master list ready to cut and paste to create an appropriate set for whatever each job requires.

When you go to an interview, bring a list of references with you. It's OK to have a longer list than traditional since you don't know what will be asked for. To make it easier for the recruiter, just include your relationship with each reference on the sheet.

If you take care of business beforehand, your reference check can cement the job for you. In some cases, the process can even put you over the top if you're in competition with another person for the position.