Who — and how — to ask for professional references
Applying & Interviewing

Who — and how — to ask for professional references

No matter where you are in your career, it’s important to have a list of people in mind who can vouch for you. Professional references are people who can verify what you’ve already told a potential employer through your resume or interviews.

Having strong professional references is vital: A positive recommendation could seal your fate as the top candidate; a negative one could send you straight to the bottom of the heap.

Ideally, anyone you’d consider having as a reference will be prepared to speak to your qualifications as they relate to the job you’re pursuing. But you can’t just assume this will happen if you list someone as a reference without asking them first, or if you end up asking the wrong person. So it pays (maybe literally!) to think carefully about who to ask — and how to do it.

Who should you ask to be a reference?

References should be people you have a good professional relationship with. It’s best to have at least three references on hand, and to make sure you have a few alternates on hand depending on the kind of job you’re applying for.

There are a few groups you can consider pulling from, but across the board, consider the following:

  • How highly each person thinks of you
  • The length of your relationship with them
  • Their ability to articulate why you’re a great candidate

Here are a few examples of people to consider asking for a reference:

Former employer or direct supervisor

Someone who hired you, oversaw you directly, and assigned your responsibilities should have the best understanding of your work ethic, strengths, and weaknesses.

Colleague

If you had a good working relationship with someone in the same or a similar job title, consider asking them for a reference. If they’ve done the same work as you, they’ll be able to explain the kinds of tasks you’ve completed before. And, since you’ve shared a workspace, they should also be able to speak about you as a communicator, team player, and overall fun person to have around!

Professional mentor

Maybe there’s someone in your field who never worked with you directly but has seen your growth over the course of your career. Give them a chance to talk about your eagerness to learn, your drive to improve your skills, and your motivation to succeed!

What if you’re just coming out of school?

If you’re recently graduated or just new to the job market, you may not have many professional contacts yet. Be on the lookout for references in these other areas:

Teacher or professor

Although they never employed you, someone who worked on your education can still speak to a lot of your good qualities: your readiness to learn, confidence, or timeliness in finishing course work are just a few of the good points an instructor can speak to.

Internship supervisor

Even if your internship was unpaid, a supervisor can be a great resource for a reference if you had a positive experience as an intern.

Volunteer coordinator

If you’ve ever donated your time to a charitable cause, you’ve demonstrated generosity, reliability, and a hard-working attitude. Consider asking someone who oversaw the project or worked alongside you to vouch for these qualities.

Should you use your current employer for a reference?

If you’re searching for a job while you have a job, it might seem natural to ask a trusted contact at your current employer. But that could work against you in the end.

The best time to find a new job is when you’re already working, but that doesn’t mean your employer feels the same way. Although a colleague or supervisor at your current job may genuinely want to see you succeed, your best bet is to keep your job search confidential while it’s in progress… just in case. Keep them in mind as a reference for later down the line.

How to ask for a reference

So, you’ve figured out who you want to list as your references. All done? Not quite. The last thing you want is for someone on your list to get contacted by your potential employer and be caught completely off guard! Here are a few tips for getting your potential references on board.

Always ask permission

Never assume that someone will be eager to give a reference — even if they’re a great connection otherwise. Asking in advance makes it less likely that you’ll receive a negative reference from someone. It also avoids inconveniencing someone who has a positive impression of you, but doesn’t have the time or ability to speak confidently to a potential employer on your behalf.

Even if someone has offered to be a reference for you in the past, it’s always better to check in with them about it again. A polite phone call or email should do the trick.

Inform them of your job search

You don’t want your references to be unprepared if they’re contacted by a job poster. Inform your references in advance if they’re likely to hear from a hiring manager. Make sure to give them the title and description of the position you’re applying for. Sending the job posting itself also helps.

Give context

You’ll also want to explain why you’re asking them in particular to refer you for this job—the qualities or experience they’ll be able emphasize. Don’t overdo it, though; an authentic recommendation will go much farther than a prepared script. Just make sure they’re caught up on your recent accomplishments and understand what you’re trying to get across to your next potential employer.

Show gratitude

Most importantly, remember that your references are doing you a favor, even if they’re never contacted. They’re putting their time and energy into helping you succeed. Send a nice email, card, or buy them a coffee to make sure they know you appreciate them.

Should you include references on your resume?

You’ve created a great list of references. Should you go ahead and add them to your resume? No, actually. There’s plenty more detail in our article about why you should avoid putting references on your resume, but the general rule of thumb is to leave references and “references available upon request” off your resume entirely.

Do make a separate document for them that you’ll have ready if and when a prospective employer asks you to provide references.

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