If you’re looking for how to provide references for a job (or who to list as references for a job), then you’re in the right place.
I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know about giving professional references for a job – on your resume, on applications, after the interview, and when recruiters ask.
I’ll also cover the mistakes you need to avoid if you want to get hired.
Let’s get started…
You should provide three references to each employer in your job search, with at least two being professional references. Or, if the employer asked for a specific amount, then you should follow their instructions when listing references.
For each reference, provide their full name, contact number, the hours they’re available to be contacted, and your relationship. Make sure you’ve spoken to each reference beforehand and confirmed that they’re comfortable giving a positive reference for you, too.
I’ve called references while working as a recruiter and they didn’t even know they had been listed as a job reference. That does not look good for the candidate.
When listing job references, add a note after each person’s name to indicate whether you have a professional or personal relationship. For professional references, also indicate whether the person was your manager or simply a peer/colleague. Next, indicate whether each professional reference is somebody at your current employer or someone from a former company.
See below for examples of how to list relationship on references:
Professional references are people who have seen your work first-hand and have been colleagues, bosses, or supervisors in past jobs. (Or occasionally, someone you’ve supervised). If you’re an entry-level candidate, then your professional references can be professors/teachers.
On the other hand, personal references (also called character references) are people you know personally. This could be a former sports coach, family friend, or any other personal contact who can speak to your character and personality traits (like hard-working, excellent leadership, etc.)
When choosing personal references for a job, pick people who know you well and like you. They’ll be able to speak highly of your character and personality traits, which will help you get hired.
If you’re currently employed, rounding up great references can be tricky, but here are some ideas to help you:
First, if you’ve held other jobs in the past, you can approach colleagues from those previous positions and ask them to be a reference. Explain that you’re currently employed and therefore cannot use references from your current job. That way, they’ll understand why you’re contacting them even if it’s been a few years since you worked together.
Employers should understand why you can’t provide references from your current job, too. Any reasonable employer will quickly realize why you’re not able to ask someone you currently work with to be a reference.
However, if you do have a very close relationship with someone at work and trust them enough, you could also ask them to provide a reference. But if you feel this is a risk, or you’re not sure how they’ll react, DON’T risk it!
You can simply follow the advice above and give references from past jobs.
Whoever you decide to ask to be a reference, make sure to talk to them first!
I’ve worked for many years as a recruiter and there’s nothing worse than calling someone’s reference and being told, “Oh, I didn’t know that they had put me down as a reference.”
It just doesn’t reflect well on you. It doesn’t make you seem upfront, or like someone who communicates well. (And those are traits that hiring managers look for in interviews).
So always talk to your references and ask if they’re okay with being listed. And also ask if they feel comfortable speaking highly of your work! You don’t want a reference who’s going to say you’re not a great worker.
So you should ask, “Are you willing to be a reference in my current job search?” but then also ask, “And do you feel comfortable speaking about the quality of my work, and recommending me to employers?”
As a final step, make sure you confirm the best phone number for them to receive calls on. You don’t want any mix-ups where someone is expecting a phone call on a different number and misses the call.
While traditionally, references were sent on a resume or in a separate document, it’s not acceptable to send your references to an employer directly via email. This is the best method for sending references to an employer or recruiter, unless they specify otherwise.
Once you have your list of names to give employers, you’ll want to format it and get it ready to send.
I recommend putting together your full list in a Word doc or the body of an email. You could also ask the recruiter or employer which format they prefer.
Example of how to format your references:
Name: John Smith
Relationship: Professional reference (current manager)
Phone number: 555-555-5555
Availability: Weekdays from 9 AM – 3 PM Eastern Time
Employers may ask you for reference letters, too. In this case, you’d ask your references to write a page about why they’d recommend you and what they observed about your work that would make you a great employee.
Reference letters are great because you can send a copy to multiple employers, which could save time in the long run. However, it’s best to find out what format an employer prefers (phone call vs. reference letter) and provide what they want!
If you follow the steps above, you’ll make a great impression with employers and get more job offers from your interviews… without ever providing a “bad” reference or doing anything that could cost you the job!
If you have no prior work experience or internships, then it’s normal to not have any professional references. You can use personal references. Consider asking professors/teachers for letters of recommendation, asking family friends, former coaches (sports, music, etc.) and anyone else who can vouch for your character and work ethic.
However, if you’ve held a job, it’s expected that you can get at least one or two former coworkers to provide a reference. If not, it’s a serious “red flag” to most employers.
So, I recommend reading this article on who to use as a reference and coming up with a few names you can call and ask to be your reference.
Now that we’ve covered some basics of providing references for a job, let’s talk about the right time to share references, because many employers ask too early and I do not recommend providing references before speaking to the employer.
I’ll explain why below.
I don’t recommend putting references directly on a resume. Ideally, your references will be people you’ve spoken with recently and are willing to speak highly of your work. You don’t want to flood these people with a huge amount of phone calls. You want to “save” them for when an employer is truly interested in you.
This is what the best, most in-demand job seekers do! Imagine you have 20 companies trying to hire you. Are you going to just send them each a list of your references, and have each of your references take 20 phone calls? No way!
So to position yourself as an in-demand candidate and appear modern/up-to-date in your job search, I recommend NOT including professional or personal references on your resume.
I also don’t recommend saying, “references available upon request,” on your resume. This doesn’t need to be said; employers already assume you have references that you can provide. So including this sentence just makes your resume format look outdated.
Since you don’t want to give references too early (as discussed above), you should not provide a list of references on an application form, either.
Instead, put a note indicating that you have multiple personal and professional references that you’re ready to provide, however, you’d like to speak first to ensure that the position is a potential good match.
It’s okay to say that you don’t give references before having an interview.
If you’re worried about losing out on job interviews when you apply for jobs, you could list names and positions, but no contact info. That way, the employer or recruiter sees that you have references ready to go, but understands you’d like to have a real interview first.
Here’s a sample of providing a reference with this approach:
Reference Name: Bethany Jones
Relationship: Professional reference (former colleague at XYZ Company)
Email: Will be provided after job interview
Phone number: Will be provided after job interview
The right time to give your list of references to an employer is when you know they’re becoming interested in offering you the position.
It should be a late-stage step, not the beginning of the process. Remember: You don’t want to waste your reference’s time by asking them to talk to countless employers who may or may not even want you on their team!
So it’s best to try to hold off on giving your references until you’ve had at least one or two interviews – for example, a phone interview and then a face-to-face interview with the hiring manager.
That way, you’re not asking too much of your references, and you know that you’re close to the end of the process when you do provide a list of professional references to the company.
One exception: If you were fired or laid off, or a recruiter or employer has some other concerns in a first conversation, they may ask for a reference ahead of time. You can consider providing one great reference if this is the case.
Throughout your job search, you may also have a recruiter asking you for references.
When a recruiter asks for references, it’s okay to tell them that you have multiple professional references that you can provide, but you have a policy of not giving out references until you’ve had an interview with the company and made sure the position is a good potential fit.
Explain that you’re happy to give references and you certainly understand that an offer won’t be made without it, but that you aren’t comfortable providing references upfront. Tell them that you’ll provide them directly to the hiring manager when the time comes.
One exception: If you were fired or laid off, a recruiter may want to talk to a reference just to hear someone verify your explanation for why you were fired.
They’re going to invest time/effort into working with you and helping you find a position, so they want to understand your story.
In this case, it might be a good idea to provide one reference upfront to put their mind at ease and get them to buy in to helping you. But for everyone else, tell them you need to interview for jobs first, and you’ll provide references at the appropriate time.
For a full explanation of how recruiters work and how to get them to help you, read this article.
Recruiters from staffing agencies will often ask for a list of professional references in the first conversation as a way to build their network and find even more job seekers to work with.
They’ll call the references and ask a few questions about you, but also try to build a relationship so they can represent that person in their job search next time they’re looking for a change.
So, be aware of this, and don’t let recruiters get your references before you’ve spoken with an employer directly! This is yet another reason to tell them you do not give references before having an interview and knowing if the employer is interested in your background.
Biron Clark is a former Executive Recruiter who has worked with hundreds of job seekers, reviewed thousands of resumes and LinkedIn profiles, and recruited for top venture-backed startups and Fortune 500 companies. He has been advising job seekers since 2012 to think differently in their job search and land high-paying, competitive positions.
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