Tips for Choosing the Best Job References

Updated June 23, 2023

If you make it far enough in the interview process, a hiring manager may ask you for a list of professional references. While your job references are meant to endorse your skills and qualifications just like your resume and cover letter do, you can't actually control what your references say about you. You do, however, have the ability to select who you want as a reference. In this article, we explain what a job reference is, provide you with a list of tips for choosing the best job references and answer some frequently asked questions.

What is a job reference?

Also known as a letter of recommendation or referral, a job reference refers to an endorsement from an individual about your work-related qualifications. Job references often come from your former manager, supervisor or colleague who can speak about your work ethic, your character and your skills. Typically, hiring managers don't ask for them until later on in the interview process. Combined with your relevant qualifications, your job references have the ability to influence whether or not you get a job.

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Tips for choosing the best job references

When you apply for a job, have a list of references available in the event that a hiring manager asks for them. Since a job reference has the potential to affect whether or not you get a job, it's important to select individuals who can provide you with a positive review. Consider these tips for selecting a quality job reference:

1. Ask for permission

When a hiring manager asks you for a list of references, make sure you have permission from each of your references. Even if you think you have a good relationship with who you want to ask, they may not feel comfortable providing you with a job reference for whatever reason. Asking them instead of just providing a manager with their contact information shows your professionalism and respect. Asking for permission ahead of time helps them prepare, therefore, increasing your chances of a positive referral.

Related: How To Ask Someone To Be a Job Reference

2. Ask your references for their contact information

Even if you already have your reference's contact information, ask them for it anyway. This ensures you use their preferred method of communication. It also lets them know which phone or email account they need to check periodically. Make sure you have their full name, their current job title, their phone number, their email address and their current work address. While a hiring manager may not ask for all of this information, you should have it handy if they do ask.

3. Prepare your job references

If you advance further in the interview process, make sure your references have the materials they need, such as a copy of your latest resume and your relevant portfolio samples. You can also inform them about your recent projects or your greatest accomplishments that relate to the job you're applying for. Make sure they know the company you're applying for and the specific job title. It can also help to let them know why you applied for the job so they can reinforce this when a hiring manager contacts them.

4. Choose people who can attest to your abilities

When you select your references, choose people who can speak positively about your work ethic, your skills and your character to allow hiring managers to see what valuable contributions you could feasibly also bring to their company. Your references don't always have to be from paid positions, either. You can include references from people with whom you volunteered or helped in another professional capacity.

5. Find common ground

While you select your references, consider finding commonalities between the hiring manager who reviews your references and the people who provide them. For example, if your supervisor and the hiring manager are from the same city or have the same alma mater, it may encourage the hiring manager to consider your application more seriously because they have some sort of connection. It may also make them feel more open and candid when they speak with you and your references. When this happens, it can improve your chances of getting the job.

6. Ask your previous manager or supervisor

If you performed well at your previous job, consider asking your former manager or supervisor for a reference. Since you worked for them, they're aware of your work ethic and how well you excelled in your position. Your previous manager can also provide hiring managers with examples of your work performance and discuss the overall value you added to their team and the company at large.

When you include your previous supervisor or manager as a reference, it can indicate to hiring managers that you have a great working relationship with your superiors. If you don't list them, it can indicate you didn't perform well or didn't want to jeopardize your current position if you're applying for a new job while still employed. If the latter is the case, let the hiring manager know that you're happy to provide a reference from them once you have an offer pending.

If you want to avoid this situation altogether, ask for references outside of your current organization. You can notify the hiring manager that you omitted your current employer or current colleagues as references to avoid letting them know of your pending resignation prematurely.

7. Ask a coworker or colleague

While it's nice to have a reference from someone you worked under, a colleague can also speak to your skills and abilities. References from coworkers are also a good option if you had issues with your former supervisor.

8. Ask your professor or teacher

If you're a recent graduate, consider asking your professor for a reference—especially if they taught a subject that relates to your field or the job you're applying for. Not only can they speak about your character, but they can also talk about the skills you learned in their class.

9. Ask your academic advisor or school counselor

Apart from your professor, you can also ask your academic advisor or school counselor provided you spent enough time with them. When you include your academic advisor as a reference, it allows them to discuss how you've grown through the years.

10. Consider an internal reference

If you know anyone at the company you're applying to who can speak about your abilities, consider asking them for a reference. Having an inside connection can increase your chances of getting the job since the hiring manager likely knows them and trusts their opinion.

11. Think about what your references might say about you

When you select your references, it's important to find people who can provide you with a good recommendation since it can influence a hiring manager's opinion of you. Because of this, it's important to have a clear understanding of the reference they'd provide you with. Consider pre-screening your references using online tools and platforms, or have your reference verbally agree to give you a positive endorsement.

Related: How To Determine Who To Use as a Reference

12. Think strategically about the type of reference you want

Select references that can specifically endorse the skills you need for the job you're applying for. While some of your references can speak about your technical skills, others may be able to attest to your character. Overall, make sure the list of references you provide can cover your personality and most—if not all—of the relevant job qualifications.

13. Have several references available

Instead of asking for one or two job references, collect a group of references to potentially use for your next job application. Though it's not common for employers to ask for more than three references, having a large group to choose from can help you select the best fit depending on the job's requirements. For example, if you have a large pool of references and you're applying for a software developer position, not only do you have more options to choose from, but you also have a better chance of finding enough references that can attest to your software developer skills.

Related: How To Write a Resume Reference List (With Examples)

14. Update your reference list

As you progress in your career, add and remove individuals from your reference list as you see fit. For example, consider adding new managers with whom you had a strong working relationship and removing references whom you haven't worked with for a long time. This ensures you have a group of individuals who can provide you with a relevant referral based on your current skills and experience.

15. Keep your references informed about your job search status

Update your references on the status of your job search. For example, if you advance in the interview process, notify them and let them know that they may receive a call from a hiring manager. This gives them time to prepare and provide a better reference for you overall. It's also important to notify them when you find out if you got the job.

FAQs about choosing the best job references

When running through your network for the best possible people to approach for listing as references, you may end up second-guessing some of your possible choices. Here are some frequently asked questions (with answers) to help you along with the process:

Can you list job references on your resume?

Since it's important to include only relevant information on your resume, it's best to avoid listing your references. You can also omit the phrase "references available upon request" on your resume since it's often common knowledge. The only time to consider listing references on your resume is if a job description specifically asks as much if you work in an industry that uses case studies or testimonials as part of your resume. In the case of the latter, you can include an individual's name and contact information that applies to the case study or testimonial.

Related: Q&A: Should You Include References on a Resume?

Can you ask a friend for a job reference?

It's often best to avoid asking friends for a job reference. However, you can include them if you're currently employed at the company you're applying for or if they were your previous supervisor.

How should you ask for a reference?

When you want to ask for a reference, give the person a phone call or ask them in person. If it's less immediate or if you don't have a way to contact them by phone, contact them via email. If it's been a while since you spoke with a potential reference, remind them of your name, your previous job title or what you worked on together and a summary of your career direction.

Even if you want them to serve as a reference, phrase your question in a way that allows them to respectfully decline. For example, you can ask, "Would you feel comfortable serving as a reference for a job where I'm applying?" or "Do you have time to serve as one of my job references in the next few weeks?"

What should you include on a reference list?

When you provide a prospective employer with a list of your references, make sure to have your name at the top of the page. Then, create a list that includes the name, job title, company and contact information for each of your references.

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