Lining Up References for the Job Search


A key part of the job search and interview process is selecting professional job references. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that references are one of the top three hiring techniques used by employers.

Many employers request job references either with a job application or during the interview, so it's important to take the time to make a reference list when applying for job positions. Deciding who to include in your list and how to ask them to be a reference is an important step in getting the new job you want. 

Why References are Important

In order to learn more about a prospective employee, employers use references to get an insight into a person's work habits, character, abilities and talents. References help a prospective employer know if the person they are hiring is a right fit for their company. 

Deciding Who Should Be a Reference

Choose between three and five references and carefully select your references prior to the job interview. When choosing your references, keep the following in mind: 

Choose the Best Reference Candidates

Better references are typically people who are: 

  • Highly credible
  • Articulate
  • Have positive things to say about you
  • Available in the time frame you need a reference

While most references will come from past employers, such as co-workers and supervisors, it's a good idea to have one to two educational and character references as well. Those who are just entering the work field can use those worked with in past internships and volunteer opportunities. When choosing who should be a reference, remember the following: 

Work Around Unhappy Past Employers

If you didn't get along well with your previous employer and don't think that you have someone there who would make a good job reference, don't list them. Instead, choose a co-worker you worked with closely at the previous job who can speak highly of your accomplishments. 

Make References Unique to Each JobPhoto by Maria Fernanda Gonzalez on Unsplash

Just like you should change your cover letter and resume to reflect each job you apply for, the same goes for references. If possible, tailor the references you give a prospective employer to best reflect what the employer is looking for in a new employee. 

Look Beyond Employers

Personal references can give employers insight into your character, talents and abilities. Consider clergy members, close friends, vendors, customers, coaches and business acquaintances for personal references. 

How to Request Someone to Be a Reference

Don't Force a Hesitant Reference

When asking people to be a reference or to write a letter of recommendation and they seem to hesitate, don't push it. Not only will it be unknown what is said or written in the letter about you, employers often follow up with references and ask questions. A hesitant reference may not be able to give the best character reference or describe your qualifications adequately. 

Be Gracious

Once you are ready to ask a reference for a recommendation, remember to be gracious. If it's been a while since you've worked with the person, remind them of who you are and where you worked together. Explain to them your current job and where you are hoping to work. Ask if they would be comfortable giving you a highly positive job reference. If they hesitate, graciously say, "Thank you anyway," and leave it at that. If they are willing to be a reference, thank them and say that you will be emailing them additional information about the job and your qualifications. 

Information that Should be Given to References

When someone agrees to be a reference for you, it's important that you give them adequate information in order for them to properly refer you for the job. Don't let them just assume what qualifications or abilities you would like mentioned. Information that is helpful for references may include: 

  • Job description, which includes necessary accomplishments and duties
  • Copy of your resume
  • Copy of your cover letter
  • Your personal statement if the recommendation is for an application for a graduate school
  • Your LinkedIn profile address, which should have professional and skilled endorsements

You have the skills, education and employment history necessary to get the job that you have always wanted. Lining up references is the next step in the job search process.


Ready to boost your career?

To get started, select your career level below:


Career Services

New Graduates, Up to 2 years' Experience

Services & Pricing
You are starting out your career, you recently graduated from college, or you are about to graduate.


Career Services

Professionals, Managers, Career Changers

Services & Pricing
You have experience, and you want to advance in your field or transition to a new career.


Career Services

Executives, Leaders, Decision Makers

Services & Pricing
You are a Vice President or C-level executive ready to make an even greater difference.