Question: I always hear about how important it is to have professional references, but I haven’t been a job-seeker in several years and haven’t given them much thought lately. The problem now is that I’m looking to make a career change and I’m not sure I have reliable references. How do I go about getting references that best highlight my abilities? – Anonymous

Answer: References pose a challenge to many job-seekers regardless of their level. They allow potential employers to learn more about your skills and qualifications from someone who is already knowledgeable about your experience. They’re often requested by a hiring manager looking to bring you on to their team after they’ve completed interviews and reviewed your credentials. Although professional references are often conducted once top candidates are already identified, this certainly doesn’t mean they’re not an incredibly important resource for hiring managers. In fact, it means the opposite – references are often used to differentiate the very best candidate from other top choices with similar experience. With that, it’s important to continually establish and foster great working relationships with your supervisors, colleagues or professional acquaintances— and it’s better to ask later rather than never!  Additionally, always remember to let your references know that you’re planning on listing them as resources so that they’re not surprised by a call from a potential employer or scrambling for examples of when you succeeded at a project or exceeded expectations. It is also beneficial to provide these references with any pertinent information, such as your resume, portfolio if applicable, and highlight any main areas you would like them to emphasize.

In some cases, employers don’t give references as a company policy; the only information they will reveal is the title of the position and dates worked. While that may bode well for someone who perhaps didn’t perform as well as he or she could have, that doesn’t do the same for someone who consistently met deadlines and took calculated risks that resulted in extraordinary rewards. A way you can try and circumvent policies like these is to ask a colleague or supervisor for a character reference which speaks to—namely—your character. These references are more personal than professional and can go a long way in revealing, say, your dedication and sense of humor in a way that strictly professional references can’t.

How else can you guarantee highly effective professional references? One tip is to keep a list of references that can emphasize a wide variety of skills and experiences, and tailor the list you provide to the specific position for which you are applying each time. In addition, it is critical to establish positive references at each organization you leave. This means giving at least two weeks’ notice, maintaining professionalism when giving notice, and not mentally “checking out” in the final stretch. This is particularly important since it will affect your final impression with your employer, and will likely be what comes to mind when a hiring manager reaches out for a reference.

No matter if you’re fresh to the workforce or looking to make a career change, a strong reference can certainly enhance your application. Be sure to cultivate strong relationships with those you work with or around—you never know who will vouch for you in years to come!

Nurys Harrigan-Pedersen is president of Careers In Nonprofits, the experts in nonprofit staffing and recruiting with offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C.