Most employers will ask for references before offering you the job.
But how many references do you need? And who should you use as a reference?
As a former recruiter, I’m going to answer these questions and share my #1 tip for how to make sure you’re giving GOOD references that won’t cost you the position.
How Many References Should You Have?
Job seekers should have three to four references. For some higher-level positions, employers may request more references.
As you begin taking job interviews, aim to have three to four professional references ready, and then adjust based on each employer’s needs.
Three to four references is a good starting point and will get you through the hiring process with most employers.
Next, let’s talk about who to use (and NOT use) as job references:
Types of References to List
Some employers will allow one personal reference (also called a “character reference”) but the rest should be professional references — people who have seen your work first-hand and can tell a potential employer about your abilities and approach to work.
For example, if an employer requires three references, they may allow one character reference, but they’d also want at least two professional job references who have directly seen your work.
For character references, you can use a personal mentor, teacher, coach, etc.
When building out your professional reference list, focus primarily on recent coworkers/bosses. Start with your most recent previous employer.
For more help, this article explains who to use for professional references.
Here’s why I recommend you start with your most recent jobs and then work backward to find references:
A hiring manager may see it as a red flag if you only submit references from years ago. They’ll wonder why you didn’t include any recent colleagues… and if it’s because you’ve struggled recently.
Also, if you’re not going to include your one or two most recent managers on your reference sheet, be prepared to explain why.
Most companies expect to talk to one or two former managers when checking references.
If you don’t provide your recent boss as a reference, hiring managers are likely to ask why.
If you’re still employed, you can say that your current boss doesn’t know you’re job searching. Otherwise, you can say the company has a policy of not providing references, or come up with another reason.
Do Not List References on Your Resume or on Job Applications
You should not list references on your resume or job applications. Instead, always provide references via a separate document when requested.
Ideally, a potential employer will call your references only after you’ve attended a few interviews… when they’re reasonably certain they want to offer you the job.
You should control when you give out references in your job search. And you should know when reference checks are happening.
You can’t do either of these things if your references are listed on your resume directly, so always provide a separate reference list.
This prevents your references from receiving too many calls. They didn’t sign up to take 15 phone calls from employers who just saw your resume and nothing else.
You should be saving your professional references for when a job offer is pending.
Speak to Your Job References Before the Hiring Manager Does
One important rule to follow in any job search: Speak to your references before the employer calls them.
A bad reference can cost you the job.
What’s a bad reference?
Someone who either speaks poorly about your work or says they aren’t familiar enough with your work to comment on its quality.
You don’t want a reference to get on the phone and say, “I never worked closely with them, so I really can’t comment much on their work.”
So you should ask your references, “Are you comfortable speaking positively about my past work?”
This will help you weed out potential bad references before they get on the phone with the potential employer.
And then, to help your references prepare for the call, tell them the job title you’re being considered for and explain a bit about the job description.
It’s not going to look good if a reference has no idea about the particular position you’re interviewing for.
With this basic info, your job references will be able to speak much more clearly and favorably of you as a candidate.
Can You Have Too Many References?
Earlier, I recommended having three to four professional references, since that’s what most employers request. But is it beneficial to have more? And can you have “too many” references?
You can never have too many references ready in your job search. It’s a good idea to have a few more than you think you’ll need, in case an employer asks for more than you expected or cannot reach one reference.
However, it is possible to provide an employer with too many references. Ask an employer how many references they want, and provide the exact amount they requested.
Most will want three to four references.
Don’t send a list of five people if an employer specifically asks for three references. That will look sloppy and won’t help you pass a reference check.
Instead, send your best three references.
But you never know when one reference will be busy or unreachable, or will say they’re not comfortable talking about your ability to perform a certain role/job title you’re considering.
By having a few extra references available, you can also talk to each reference beforehand and determine if they’ll speak highly of your abilities.
So have a few extra, talk to each, and be sure that you’re handing the company a list of references who will put you at the top of their list and win you the job!
As a recruiter, I’ve seen the opposite more than a few times… a great candidate near the job offer stage who lost the role due to bad references.
So don’t take reference checks lightly. They’re quick and simple, but they do matter.
Conclusion: How Many Job References Should You Have?
The number of references you need varies by company, but most will request three to four references.
Prepare at least three good professional references to start, and then look to the employer’s guidance.
Then, speak to each job reference before they talk to the hiring manager, to ensure they’re comfortable speaking positively about your work.
Employers consider reference checks to be an important part of the hiring process, so don’t take it lightly when you’re asked to provide references.