Professional references: What they are, who to ask, and the Importance of having them

Last updated: June 14, 2024
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Kai Dickerson
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Professional references: What they are, who to ask, and the Importance of having them
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You know you’re the perfect candidate for the job. Your resume demonstrates that you have all the right skills. Your cover letter talks about your experience in the field.

But why should the hiring manager take your word for it? To convince a potential employer that everything in your job application is accurate and that you would be an ideal employee, you need professional references.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about what professional references are and how to get them.

What are professional references?

Professional references are people who can vouch for your qualifications for a job. The best references know you in a professional capacity and can speak to your skills, strengths, work ethic, and work style.

Hiring managers contact your references during the job application process to learn more about you. This frequently happens after you’ve already interviewed for the position, but can also happen earlier in the process.

What’s the importance of having professional references?

For many job seekers, professional references are an afterthought. But you should make sure your references are high quality — senior managers say that 34% of candidates are removed from consideration after the reference check.

A great reference can help your potential employer recognize your strengths. A former boss or colleague will know things about you — like that you’re a quick learner with a strong work ethic — that you can’t prove with a resume or cover letter.

Can a family member or friend be a professional reference?

We know that your mom thinks you would be perfect for the job. Unfortunately, hiring managers are looking for someone a bit less biased.

In most cases, employers only want to talk to professional references, but sometimes they’ll ask for a personal reference as well. A personal reference can be someone you’ve never worked with, but it still probably shouldn’t be your mom (or direct family member).

What’s the difference between personal and professional references?

A personal reference, also sometimes called a character reference, is someone who can give the hiring manager a sense of your personality and whether you would fit in well at a company.

The best personal references know you well but aren’t as close to you as a significant other or parent. Teachers, community leaders, neighbors, or coaches can all be great character references.

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Should I list my current employer as a reference?

You can definitely use your current employer as a professional reference if you want. However, if you would rather not tell your employer that you’re thinking of leaving your job, you don’t have to put them on your reference list.

Some hiring managers will ask you for permission to talk to your current employer. Saying no is common and acceptable — employers understand that many people don’t want their current boss to know that they’re looking for new work.

Who should I ask for a professional reference?

38% of managers believe that insight into an applicant's strengths and weaknesses is the most important information they could receive from a reference. 22% are more interested in getting a description of your experience from a past job.

You should choose references that can give hiring managers the information they want. Most of the time, that means using a past employer or supervisor as a reference. But there are other options.

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Current boss or past employer

Previous employers are usually seen as the most useful, trustworthy references. Try to include at least one recent supervisor on your list of references, if possible.

Past employers are ideal references because they can talk about what you’re like as an employee. That’s exactly what future employers want to know.

However, you should only use a former boss as your reference if you had a good relationship and you’re sure they’ll say positive things.


Sometimes, your coworkers have insights that your supervisor doesn’t. For example, they might be able to talk about how well you collaborate with a team.

You can also use a colleague if you want to include a reference from your current job, but don’t want to tell your employer that you’re leaving. Just make sure it’s someone you’ve worked with closely.

Teacher or advisor

References from teachers are especially useful if you recently finished school and haven’t been in the workforce very long. A reference from a teacher will focus on similar qualities to a reference from an employer, such as your abilities and your work ethic.

However, if you’ve been out of school and working for a while, try to get references from your current or past jobs.

Whomever you ask: Keep it real

You should never try to fake a reference. That might be obvious to you, but it’s not clear to everybody. 43.75% of job applicants say they’ve used a false reference or would do so.

Faking a reference is a strategy that can seriously backfire. Hiring managers consider faking references to be the worst thing a job applicant could do in the hiring process — even worse than lying on a resume or in an interview. Over half say they would never hire a candidate who misrepresented professional references.

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The most important thing to look for in a reference is that the person knows a lot about your work — and will say great things about it.

How do I ask someone to be a reference?

You should always make sure your references know they might be contacted.

No matter how much your former supervisor or coworker might like you, it will be hard for them to give a great reference if they’re caught off guard and know nothing about your job search.

Contact your potential reference and let them know that you’re looking for a new position. Ask if they feel they could provide a good reference for you.

This gives them the chance to say no if they don’t feel comfortable being a reference. The last thing you want is a professional reference that can’t give you a glowing recommendation.

Make it easy for your references. You can’t tell them exactly what to say, but you can help them out by sharing your resume and the job description. You can even let them know why you think you’re a good fit for the position.

Be sure to thank them for taking the time to be a professional reference.

How to list references for a job

Before you apply for jobs, prepare a reference page with at least three professional references.

The reference page should have your name and contact information at the top, followed by this information for each reference:

  • Name
  • Current position
  • Company
  • Phone number
  • Email address
  • Reference description (this is a sentence or two about when, where, and in what capacity you worked with the person)

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Professional references might not seem like the most important part of a job application, but they can make or break your chance of getting hired.

Before you look for new work, prepare a list of references who know you well and can speak about your best traits. With their help, your future employer will see why you’re the best candidate for the job.

Looking for more tips and advice for your job search? Visit the Jobcase Getting Hired Resource Center.



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