Knowing who to use as a reference is essential knowledge for any job seeker. And while it might seem simple, there are right and wrong choices you can make when putting that list together!
This guide will teach you who to put as a professional reference, and why.
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Who to Use as a Reference
While an impressive resume and top-notch interviewing skills can improve your chances of getting a job, choosing the right references can be just as important. The best professional references come from individuals who can speak to your experience, work ethic, and character.
So who should you use as a reference? Here are people you should consider.
1. Current Supervisors or Managers
Supervisors and managers you report to are excellent people to use as professional references. They have experience working with you and likely know your capabilities more than anyone. These individuals can describe your work ethic and provide more insight into the type of employee you’ll be for this new job. Hiring managers understand that skills and work styles evolve, so they prefer to hear from people you worked under recently.
And of course, choose managers you had a good rapport with during your tenure at that job. Select those you know will endorse your skills and speak highly of you as an employee.
If you are currently working, selecting your current supervisor or manager as a reference is not a good choice. You want to keep your job search confidential. See more about this later in this guide.
2. Former Employer
Another good reference can come from former employers. A supervisor, manager or coworker you worked with previously knows your work well. While they might not have recent experience working with you, at one time they did know enough about your capabilities and could recommend you for a job. They have seen your work and have a good idea of your dependability and overall work ethic.
Using recent bosses as a reference is usually a good idea. However, there are some circumstances that might require you to leave them off. For example, if you are currently employed and reporting to them or you know they won’t have favorable things to say about you.
The good news is that glowing references from former employers can hold just as much weight and can make a positive impact on the decision as any other references.
3. Valued Coworkers
Coworkers can provide tons of insight into what you’re like day-to-day. When thinking about who to use as a reference, consider including some of the colleagues you collaborate with and interact with regularly.
We’re not talking about your best work friend from another department that you meet at the water cooler for daily gossip. We’re talking about people who understand your work responsibilities and can speak to the benefits your skills bring. They need to be familiar with your work duties. Otherwise, they won’t be able to speak about your suitability for this new role.
Clients can be powerful references that leave a lasting impact on hiring decision-makers. It’s particularly beneficial if you work in a service-based industry. From accounting to sales, hearing from a client who enjoyed their experience with you goes a long way.
They know how you work and how you interact with clients. What better way to learn about that facet of your skillset than from someone you served directly? It’s a great way to learn more about your ability to interact with customers and the quality of work that you do.
5. Supervisors or Managers Where You Volunteered
If you don’t have paid work experience, that’s alright. You can turn to your volunteer experience. No matter where you donate your time, there’s someone in charge. Consider asking them to be a reference.
Like teachers, they can speak volumes of your potential. More importantly, they can vouch for your character and work ethic. While it’s best to seek references from individuals within the industry you’re entering, any volunteer supervisor will get a glimpse of how you work.
They can see your dedication, understand your motivations, and speak of the work styles you employ while volunteering.
6. Internship Connections
Internships are a critical part of many industries. If you’re a new graduate seeking your first entry-level job, having that experience as an intern can be quite beneficial. Consider using the connections you made during that time to help you get a job.
Your new network can do more than inform you about job openings. They can act as references to endorse your skills and capabilities. Go to program directors, individuals you shadowed, and anyone else you met.
The best references are those who worked with you directly and have a good idea of how you operate. While the internship might have only lasted several weeks, that’s more than enough time for those connections to get a good idea of the employee you can be.
7. Teachers or Professors
If you’re a new graduate looking to enter the field for the first time, you might not have much work experience (here’s our guide on how to navigate that). As a result, your options for professional references are more limited. Fortunately, there are others you can go to beyond bosses, managers, and coworkers.
Professors who are deeply familiar with your skills are great to put down as a reference. They know how you work and can speak to your potential within the field.
The best teachers to use as references are those who run courses directly related to your field. Chances are, they have real-world work experience in the industry and can easily relate your capabilities to the job you want to land.
8. Academic Advisors
Finally, new graduates can ask academic advisors to serve as references. They already know how important good references are, so many are more than willing to vouch for your skills.
Advisors offer similar benefits to professors. They know your skills and capabilities and have a good idea of your potential in your chosen field. However, unlike teachers, advisors often work with you for several years.
They get to know you, learn about your aspirations, and discover your personality traits. For hiring managers, their insight is valuable.
Who You Shouldn’t Put as a Reference
Now that you know who to use as a reference, let’s go over who shouldn’t make the cut. When companies ask for references, they expect to hear from people who can speak of your capabilities in the workforce.
That means they don’t want to hear from the following people.
Never put personal friends on your professional reference list. This is a huge mistake that can cost you a job offer.
Your friends don’t have any insight into your professional life. They might hear about your job and understand what you do. But do they spend every day seeing your work under pressure?
They provide no real value to the hiring process, so it’s best to leave them off.
Like friends, adding family members to your reference list is a big mistake.
Your family members want you to succeed, so they’ll likely talk you up to hiring managers. While you might see that as a benefit, it’s quite the contrary.
Family is inherently biased. Plus, they don’t know about how you work. All they know is what you tell them. Adding family to your list will likely come off as unprofessional, so don’t consider it.
There is one exception – if you worked for your family’s business, then it is appropriate to list a family member if they were your supervisor.
Anyone at a Company That Fired You
This should go without saying, but never put down people from a company that fired you. Even if the individual you put down as a reference didn’t agree with your dismissal, it’s not a good idea to include them.
There may or may not be bad blood, but there’s one thing you can guarantee: The company that fired you will likely say they wouldn’t hire you again. That statement alone is enough to raise red flags.
The worst-case scenario is that they speak ill of your skills and capabilities. Either way, that conversation will likely work against you.
People Who You Don’t Know Well
Another mistake many job-seekers make is using someone they don’t know very well as a professional reference. For example, you might feel tempted to include a department head you rarely interacted with due to their high standing at the company. That’s not a great idea.
First, that person might not remember who you are. If a hiring manager calls them up and they have no idea who you are, that doesn’t look very good.
Secondly, they don’t have experience working with you. If someone doesn’t know you, they can’t speak highly of your personality or work traits. They provide no value and can’t say anything that would swing the decision in your favor.
Someone Who Isn’t Prepared to Receive a Reference Call
It’s common courtesy to ask about including someone on your reference list. It’s never a good idea to put down contact information without getting the OK first.
You should also avoid people who are too busy to accept reference calls. That may be difficult to predict, but it’s something you should bring up when asking permission to be a reference.
If the hiring manager can’t get in touch with that individual, using them as a reference isn’t going to help you. It might even send the wrong message and make hiring managers think you’re hiding something.
Should You Use Your Current Employer as a Reference?
Whether or not you should include someone from your current employer depends on the situation.
If you’re trying to make career moves without your boss or current employer knowing then using them as a reference might be a bad idea. For example, say that you’re trying to find a job before leaving your current job. That would be a drama-causing call for your current employer!
The sudden surprise of hearing about your job search could cause them to say things you don’t want them to say.
If you can’t or don’t want to use your boss or supervisor from your current employer to be your reference, consider asking a current coworker or a former supervisor from the same employer that you can trust to keep your search confidential. This person should know your work ethic and be able to speak about your skills.
How to Ask Someone to Be a Professional Reference
Asking someone to be a professional reference is easier than it sounds. While it can seem a little daunting if you haven’t done it before, it’s as straightforward as asking if they will serve as a reference for you. Always ask for their permission before listing them as a reference.
You will usually be asked to provide three-five professional references. It’s best to line up five references as early as possible, just in case.
You should know that some companies have policies against employees providing references. If this is the case, your best option is to select a reference from another employer you worked for.
When requesting a reference, be detailed. Start with, “Will you be a reference for me?” And then provide information about your job search.
It’s better to provide context and inform that reference of your career aspirations. Tell them what role you’re pursuing.
Once they’ve agreed to be a reference for you, keep them in the loop during your job search and let them know when you have given your references to companies.
Prepare your references to be contacted after your interview. Let them know the skills you want them to speak about based on the job and the interview.
For example, you can mention that they’ll likely want to hear about their experiences working with you plus your skills and knowledge for the role.
If possible, provide a copy of the job description and any information about the position’s responsibilities.
Information to Include When Listing References
Applications may request specific fields when providing professional references. However, some hiring managers will simply email you asking for a list.
Provide details about the reference to help hiring managers understand who they’ll be calling. You should include the individual’s name and the company they work for.
Additionally, it’s always good to include the company’s address, the person’s business phone number, and email address.
Finally, include a sentence about how this person knows your work. For example, you can say that they were your supervisor for four years or that they managed the group of volunteers you were part of.
Stick to these simple guidelines when deciding who to use as a reference, and who to leave off your list. The best references have had professional experience working with you in the past and can speak to your capabilities in a positive light.
As long as you follow our recommendations above, you should be able to provide a handful of good references that will help you get the job you want.
Hannah Morgan speaks and writes about job search and career strategies. She founded CareerSherpa.net to educate professionals on how to maneuver through today’s job search process. Hannah was nominated as a LinkedIn Top Voice in Job Search and Careers and is a regular contributor to US News & World Report. She has been quoted by media outlets, including Forbes, USA Today, Money Magazine, Huffington Post, as well as many other publications. She is also author of The Infographic Resume and co-author of Social Networking for Business Success.