Professional References: Your Go-To Guide

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Chelsea Fonden10
If you’ve ever conducted a formal job search, you’ve come across employers asking for professional references, whether it’s upfront during the application process or after you’ve interviewed, when they’re about to make their final decision about hiring you.

What are professional references?

If an employer wants you to submit a list of professional references — oftentimes the request is for at least three professional references — that's their way of double-checking you. Who do you list as a reference? They want a recommendation from several former employers, colleagues, or clients, to check on your qualifications and past performance, learn more about the qualities you’ll bring to the table, and feel reassured about spending time and money to bring you on board. 
If you're wondering, "Can I use a classmate as a professional reference?" or "Can you use a friend as a reference?," the answer is yes. So you might be wondering How many professional references should I list? As many as necessary; just remember that a mediocre reference can lead to losing a job offer, just like a glowing one can lead to one, so read on for all you need to know about professional references!

Who are the best professional references?

If you're trying to score a new job, there are a number of people you can ask for a professional reference:
  • A former employee
  • A colleague
  • A supervisor or manager
  • A teacher
  • An HR representative

What are personal references — are they the same as professional references?

While there may be some overlap between professional and personal references, personal references, also known as character references, are not necessarily the same as professional references. Personal references are not required to be people with whom you’ve worked with before; they can be a teacher, or even a friend. Personal references are sometimes required if you’re applying to buy an apartment in a co-op, for example. If you’re applying for a job and they ask you to provide personal references or personal reference letters, be sure to ask for clarification on whether you should be getting recommendations solely from people with whom you’ve worked (which would technically make them professional references!) 
When listing professional references, you’ll want to include the names and contact information of three to five people who have worked with you in some capacity. Usually, it will be your current/former supervisor/manager or co-worker in work, volunteer, or internship roles.

The best references are people who:

  • Worked with you recently. It looks suspicious if you only list people you worked with 10 years ago and no one from your most recent positions. Use your resume as a guide when compiling your reference list; your most recent positions, toward the top of your resume, should each have a reference from your time there listed.
  • Worked with you directly. A former supervisor/manager or direct colleague is always best; that person can speak more specifically about your skills and abilities than the managing director who only met you once. They’re also better than, say, a teacher or a trainer; while these educational references can work for those without recent/much work experience, it’s always better to list people who’ve actually worked with you, if possible.
  • Worked with you in a position/role/industry similar to the one you’re applying to now. If you have a choice of who to list from recent jobs, choose the people whose work with you is most similar to what you’re applying to now. That way, the employer will be able to see even more direct connections between your background and ability to perform this new job.
  • Will gush about you. If you have a choice between listing a colleague who absolutely loved you and will give 30 examples of how incredible you are, list her over the colleague who’s a bit shyer or less talkative on the phone. Same regarding professionalism; choosing people who will answer the phone/email back professionally will always play out better than listing someone who answers the phone unprofessionally.
  • Are in good standing/impressive in their own right. If you worked closely with a former director with an impressive title, or you’ve worked with someone well-known in your field, a little name-dropping never hurt anybody! Just make sure this person, if they’re better-known, is going to be available to give a reference for you. I once listed a former director with an impressive new job who was going to be getting married in France during my reference-check, so I made sure to also list a back-up with a note for the employer just in case they couldn’t reach her (but they did... and I got the job!).
Don’t list family or significant others (past or present); they’re thought to be biased regardless of your performance. And don’t list friends or neighbors; those people are personal character references, and you only need to list personal references if/when asked. Also, be careful about asking to list current bosses/colleagues; you should have a trusting enough relationship with them that you feel they’ll keep the fact that you’re job searching under wraps.

Asking for permission.

After you’re done compiling a list of names, reaching out and asking for permission is key. You want to make sure the person not only remembers you, but that they’re excited to give the reference, and that they can target it to the new position you’re applying for.
Here’s a great example from The Muse on how to strategically reach out as a job seeker and ask someone to serve as a reference for you:

Hi [name],

I hope all is well! How have things been with you and [the person’s company, organization, or personal interest]? 

I’m reaching out because I’ve been interviewing for a [position name] role at [company], and I’d love to list your name as a reference, if you’re willing. I thought of you because we’ve [ways in which you’ve worked together], and you could speak to my [key skills and abilities needed in the new position].

I’ve attached my current resume and the position description for your reference. I know the hiring team is particularly looking for someone who [very short description of key elements of the role], so specifically, I’m hoping you can talk about:

[1-2 skill, abilities, or talents that are key to the position]

[Specific project you worked on that’s relevant to the role]

[Key differentiator between you and other candidates]

Please let me know if you’d be willing to serve as a reference and, if so, your preferred contact info and any other details you need from my end. I believe the [call, email] will come from [hiring manager or recruiter’s name] at [company] around [time frame].

 And, of course, if you’re busy or not comfortable, I completely understand. Thank you in advance for your time, and let me know how I can return the favor!

All the best,

 [Your name]

The key here is the pre-coaching; you want to make sure your reference knows what you’ve been up to recently, has a copy of your resume on hand, and knows exactly what you’d like them to say to help win over your potential new employer.
It’s also a great best-practice, when leaving a job, internship, etc., to ask when you’re leaving if you can list the person as a reference in the future. That way, they’ve already said yes and will only need a reminder/update when the time comes.  

Different forms of reference checks — and do they really check?

It’s important to understand how employers are checking references these days. Most hire managers no longer require a reference letter, which is a (sometimes vague/general) letter stating how awesome you are. This is great news, since reference letters can be challenging to get from busy past employers, and are usually not as targeted for each new position.
Many employers today will call your references directly. Some may email your references first to set up a time to talk via phone, or some may do it all electronically, by sending an email and asking for written feedback in response to specific questions.
Some larger companies may use a reference check company or reference check services to carry out these checks, or some may send a link to an online form the reference can fill out about you. The online form is popular for bigger institutions that may not have time to check thousands of candidate's references, such as hospitals — one leading NYC hospital I know of uses 
It’s good to know how the employer will reach out, if possible; or at the very least, make sure to give less tech-savvy references a heads-up to make sure to check their email during the reference-checking time-frame.
Regardless of the way the prospective employer goes about checking your references, they’ll usually ask about the same types of things — and you should familiarize yourself with some sample reference check questions so that you have a good sense of who you should ask to serve as a reference for you. 
Prospective employers may ask your references about your knowledge of specific industry- or job-related functions/tasks, or they may ask your reference to rate or describe your soft skills, such as your ability to communicate, be on-time, take initiative, follow up on projects, etc. I like asking my references after the fact what they were asked so that I can learn from the experience as I continue to grow in my field!

And don’t lie.

A question I get asked a lot is, “Can’t you just get a friend to pretend they’re a former boss and lie for you? How would the employer know?” The employer may not know, but I always recommend not fabricating any part of the job search process, from your resume to your application info to your interview and your reference checks. I like to say that polished honesty is your best policy — you want to be honest, but of course not bring up anything negative (or list someone who you clearly did not get along with).

Can a previous employer disclose why you left?

In short, yes. There are no federal regulations that stipulate what a past employer can and can't disclose in situations like this. That's why it's always important to leave a previous job with class and dignity. And it is also important to choose your references wisely.

But what if I don’t have any references? Help!

Most people, when they dig, can usually find at least three job references. A best-practice is to do your best to stay in touch with past colleagues so that this doesn’t become an issue! But if you haven’t worked much before, or have lost touch or ended on bad terms, do your best to find three people — whether it’s a volunteer supervisor, an editor you worked with on a freelance gig, or an instructor from a recent professional development course you took — who can share positive first-hand knowledge about you.


For your job reference list, use the same heading at the top as on your resume/cover letter for uniformity/branding purposes. You can also put “Professional References” at the top. Then, format your references’ info as seen below, replacing the template wording with the actual information itself (no need to keep the categories listed):

First & Last Name of Reference

Title at Current Organization

Current Organization Name

City, State of Current Organization

Reference’s Preferred Phone #

Reference’s Preferred Email Address

Reference’s Relationship To You (ie, Former Manager at X Company)

Remember to pay it forward.

Whenever I work with someone closely and we have a good relationship, I always make sure to offer, usually if/when they’re leaving, to serve as a reference for them. Writing professional references or providing professional references doesn’t take much time, and I’ve found that volunteers, interns, and other more entry-level folks especially appreciate this, as they are sometimes hesitant about asking about reference checking. 
It never hurts to pay it forward by writing a good reference for someone, and I’ve maintained many great professional relationships that way. You never know when that person may be able to help you, as well!
Happy reference-checking; may you give and receive glowing references (and job offers!) for the rest of your days!

Article sources:

  1. "7 Times It’s Appropriate to Use a Personal Reference (And Not a Professional One)."
  2. "7 Ways to Crush It at Your New Job."
  3. "The 12 Questions Smart Hiring Managers Always Ask During a Reference Check."
  4. "Effective Reference Letter Samples And Templates For 3 Common Occasions."
  5. "The Email Template That Guarantees Your Reference Will Say All the Right Things."
  6. "How to Check References: 6 Questions to Ask and What to Look For."
  7. "Professionalism: 11 Important Workplace Qualities."
  8. "The Smart Way to Ask for a Reference."

About the Career Expert:

Chelsea Fonden is a career coach and resume writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Over the past 5 years, she has worked with countless jobseekers across industries and professional levels, and holds a passion for women's advancement in the workplace. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Maryland and has worked for several NYC non-profits, as well as in freelance roles.