Putting together a resume and going through the interview process can bring up a whole host of additional questions, including, “What about my professional references? Do I list them on my resume? Can I just ask anyone to be a reference?”
Compiling a list of references for a potential employer can take a bit of time, but it’s not impossible. Having a list of professional references prepared is an important step in your career process. In this article, we’ll discuss professional references and how they can help you:
What are professional references and when do I need them?
Who should I ask to be a reference?
What makes someone a good reference?
How to compile a list of references
Example of a reference list.
What is a professional reference?
A professional reference is someone who can confirm your qualifications for a job because they’ve personally observed your job performance, work ethic, expertise, and accomplishments. A reference can be someone you've worked for, a teacher/professor, a client, or even a co-worker. A good reference has worked with you or observed you on the job, as a volunteer, or in the classroom.
Who is considered a good professional reference?
Ideally, a professional reference should be someone you’ve worked with for at least six months and should be recent — within the past six or seven years or so. Generally, you want them to be your direct manager or supervisor, but a department leader, C-suite executive, or even a client is fine as long as you have interacted with them regularly and they have a good understanding of your job performance. If you’re fresh out of college or don’t have a lot of work experience, a former professor or advisor can be used as a reference.
What makes someone a good reference?
When choosing your references, make sure they embody the following qualities:
They’re credible. They should be able to give accurate information about you and the work you’ve done.
They’re reliable. You can have the promise of a glowing recommendation, but if the hiring manager can’t get a hold of them or they don’t return their messages, it isn’t going to be of any help.
They’re in your corner. A former manager might seem like a great reference, but if they wrote you negative performance reviews, you might want to find someone else.
According to an SHRM survey, 87% of employers perform reference checks as part of the hiring process.
Can I ask a friend or family member to be a reference?
Don’t include a family member unless you work for them, and even then, they shouldn’t be your top choice. If the potential employer asks for a personal reference or two, avoid your family, as they will be most likely biased. The main reason why you need strictly professional references is that they want a relatively impartial outside party to assure your work performance and overall integrity. Your mother can sing your praises, but hiring managers are more interested in the opinions of those people you've worked for. (And resist the temptation to make up a fake reference. HR managers have seen this one before and aren’t easily fooled.)
Other people that you should not use as a professional reference include
Anyone who you haven’t talked to in a long time
A manager who fired you
A celebrity you’ve never met
Should I list a current employer as a reference?
Although many potential employers ask for the name of your current employer and inquire if it’s okay to contact them, this can put you in a tricky situation, especially if your current employer doesn’t know you’re job-hunting. Let the hiring manager know that you’re happy to provide this information once an offer is made.
Current co-workers can be asked if you feel secure that they’ll keep your confidence, and can give an accurate, unbiased representation of your work performance and skills.
Listing your current employer as a reference may not be a good idea.
You probably don’t want to list your current employer as a reference, as there are no federal laws that enforce what an employer can or can’t say about you. However, according to Molly Lee Kaban, an attorney with Hanson Bridgett in San Francisco, several states have passed legislation that gives employers a “qualified immunity” when giving information about an employee, in response to reference checks, as long as the information provided is done in “good faith.”
How do I put together a list of references?
There are a few tips to keep in mind when asking someone to act as a professional reference:
Contact them via email or phone (although the phone is better), and be specific in your request.
Ask them if you can count on them to give a good reference. Don’t assume they’re going to be effusive in their praise.
If you can, give them a copy of the job description, and let them know who might be contacting them. This will allow them to feel informed and confident when they receive the call.
- Keep your list of references up to date.
- Provide the number of references that were asked for.
- Thank your references and let them know each time they might be contacted.
- List your references on your resume.
- Offer your references before you've been asked.
- Use someone as a reference without asking them first.
How to provide a list of references
Once you’ve confirmed your list of references, and ensured that they’re on board and will give you a solid recommendation, you should put everything into one detailed, organized list and have it ready to go.
Each reference should provide the following information:
Their current role
Their company name
Their contact information — email and phone number
One sentence description of how you know this person, how long, and in what capacity.
Don’t bother with a home or work address, and if your contact prefers one method of contact over another, indicate it. And so it doesn’t get misplaced, list your name and contact information at the top of the sheet.
List of references example
List of references for <your name>
<Your phone number>
Reference #1 Name
Reference #2 Name
Reference #3 Name
Here’s what it might look like all put together:
References for Janet P. Sutton
Director of Marketing
Treetop and Associates.
Helen was my supervisor from 2015 to 2019 when I worked as a Marketing Assistant for Treetop and Associates.
Compass Marketing, Inc.
Aki is an account planner I collaborate with daily in my current position at Compass Marketing.
Dr. David Householder
Professor of Marketing
Dr. Householder was my professor in three 400-level classes and acted as my faculty advisor for my digital marketing degree.
If you’ve been asked for a list of professional references, you’re in a good place. It means you did well in the interview and you're in serious contention for the job. But employers want to know more about you than what's on your resume, and a solid list of professional references can help provide them with a strong picture of your past work performance and who you are as a person. A good list of references can help you stand out from the crowd and show them you’re truly the best person for the job.
A professional reference is someone who can personally confirm your qualifications for a job.
A professional reference should be someone you’ve worked with for at least six months and within the past six or seven years or so, and should be a former manager or colleague.
Make sure you’ve asked permission to use someone as a reference.
Compile a complete list ahead of time so you have it ready if a potential employer requests it.