Put the best professional reference in your back pocket.

Your online search has led you to the perfect job opportunity. The company is a fit as far as culture and the pay is on point with what you're seeking. Up until now you've been cruising along through your application, but then you hit a wall.

The next step asks for you to enter professional references that can vouch for your performance. Your resume is in tip-top shape, and your cover letter is pristine, but you've forgotten one thing. You never compiled a list of the best employment references, and you're not sure which names you should list.

You think back to your previous jobs and search your brain for past employers you feel would rave about your performance. A few come to mind, but can you be guaranteed they'll provide a positive reference?

Submitting professional references isn't as simple as just listing a few names and email addresses. You've got to work hard to secure positive references. Here are a few tips to help you be prepared for the next time you run into a request for work references from a potential employer.

Never burn bridges

If you've already done this, it's too late. It's hard to repair a relationship with an employer when you leave on a sour note. It's not too late, however, for you to keep this tip in mind going forward and not make the mistake again.

A previous employer isn't going to vouch for your performance if you bash them or become argumentative on the way out the door. So, no matter how bad the experience, smile and play nice. You never know when you'll need a positive reference from that person.

Additionally, it's important that you don't bash previous employers when you talk to other people. You never know who's connected to whom, and word can travel fast, especially in this digital age.

Let's say, for example, you leave a job and post on social media how happy you are to be out of that place. You talk about how terrible the experience is and ramble on about your boss being a jerk. While it might have helped you blow off some steam, one of your Facebook connections might know that person, or worse yet, you might have connected with them and forgotten.

Word gets back, one way or another, and you find that when you reach to your former employees to include them on a professional reference list, your phone calls are ignored. Or worse. That person agrees to provide you with a reference, but they don't tell you it's going to be negative reference and you lose out on the job opportunity. Don't lose out. Just remember to smile and move on. You never know when you'll need someone to vouch for you.

Always do your best

Sometimes when you know you're headed out the door and moving onto the next job, it's easy to start slacking. You may not realize it, but people notice. If you start showing up to work late, turning in low quality work or otherwise not putting in the effort, your boss (and your teammates) will notice.

No matter how stellar your performance had been prior to the onset of your slacking, your recent efforts can erase all previous successes. First and last impressions are very powerful, so be mindful of the last impression you make.

Be sure to perform at the highest rate possible, and even ask for more work when possible. Look to help out your teammates even more during a time like this. A little help from a friend can go a long way in leaving a positive last impression.

Make the initial ask

Prior to your last day, sit down with your boss and let them know how much you appreciate everything during your time working with them. It's ok to ask for a reference in the future at this point.

If your boss is any good at their job, they'll be sad to see you go, but they'll be happy to see you progress in your career. It should be anyone in a management position's goal to improve the lives of those they supervise, and thus they should be happy to provide you with a reference (provided you did a good job).

Follow up

Often times, you may not need to reach out to your work references for a number of years. So that you don't become forgotten, and their reference can remain fresh, be sure to connect now and then to keep a positive rapport.

No need to mention the reference in your follow-up, unless you need it at that point. Just follow up to say you're checking in to see how that person is doing. Showing that you're thinking about them and concerned about their well-being puts you back on their mind and shows that you're not just using them for a work reference.

Provide context

When the time comes that you do need someone's reference, be sure to provide context. Offer details about the position you're interested in, and let them know exactly what points you're hoping they'll provide a reference for.

A general reference is great, but when a previous employer can vouch for capabilities that relate directly to the job to which you're applying, that can really have impact. Remind the potential reference of some of the things you accomplished while working with them and then explain how they relate to the new role.

By adding context, your work reference can be a lot more effective. Rather than simply telling the potential employer that you did a good job as a whole, your reference can vouch for specific tasks you achieved that relate directly. That connection could end up being the difference that puts you over the top.

Be thankful

After a previous employer provides a reference for you, you'll want to be sure to send them a thank you note, whether via email or a physical letter. Either one is perfectly fine.

While you may be pumped about starting your new job (the job that reference helped you land), it's highly possible that you'll be looking to find a new job while employed in the future. The reference that helped put you over the top may not be as willing to vouch for you the next time around if you didn't show gratitude the first time.

It doesn't have to be anything elaborate. No flowers or food offerings necessary. Just send a simple “thank you” note after the interview. You'll be surprised at how far those two words can take you.

Start today

Now that you're armed with this knowledge of how to start a professional reference list, it's time to get started. Don't wait until you land on that references page on your next application. If you wait, the length of time it takes you to secure those references might be time enough for the job opening to close. Don't miss out because you neglected to be proactive. Start brainstorming and contacting people today and have that list built and ready to roll before you jump into that next application.

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