Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist
Posted April 30, 2021

Who to use as a reference and why they can make or break your job application

Learn about what a professional reference is and who you should ask.
Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist
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Who to use as a reference and why they can make or break your job application
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When you prepare a resume for your job search, you should include professional references that you are on good terms with.

Choosing quality job references should be at the top of your priority list, especially if you have a short work history.

Now, you may be wondering who the best people are to use as a reference. In the following guide, we'll explain the differences between professional and personal references, and give you advice on what to look for when selecting who to use as references.

What is a professional reference?

Before a prospective employer says "yes," they'll consider a range of factors. They'll read your cover letter and resume, invite you to attend an interview, and speak to your professional references.

A professional reference is a person who can vouch for you in the workplace. They should be able to genuinely recommend you for the position.

A positive reference from a co-worker, former boss, or current employer could be the key to securing a new job.

You should only give the recruiter a reference letter or a phone number from someone who's agreed to give you a good reference.

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Why is a professional reference important?

The hiring manager doesn't know you, and they only have limited information to work with. One job posting can receive over 250 resumes, and this makes finding the right candidate a competitive process.

A professional reference could set you apart.

Employers are looking for reassurance that they're making the right decision. They also want to know if your skills and experience listed on your resume are accurate. A professional reference can confirm your story.

Why do employers ask for professional references?

Your professional reference will give recruiters insight into how you work in a team, how you perform under pressure, and whether you're reliable. The right reference will give you credibility and act as a review of your work performance.

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What are the 3 types of references?

There are three types of references. The option you choose will vary depending on the position you are applying for.

Work-related references are commonly used to support job applications. These are people you've worked closely with, such as a co-worker or employer.

They've seen you in the workplace and can talk about your responsibilities, abilities, and behaviors. If possible, your work-related reference should be a person you've worked with recently.

You should always ask permission before using someone as an academic reference. It’s a good idea to ask your professor or teacher for a one-page reference letter, as you can include this with applications. Get help with our free reference letter template.

2. Character references

It's not uncommon for job seekers to include character references in their resumes. If you don’t have three quality work-related or academic references, you can call people who know you from outside work.

A character reference is someone that can speak positively about your personality, qualities, and any experience they are aware of. A character reference could be a friend, community leader, coach, minister, or supervisor. You should never ask a family member to act as a reference.

3. School or training references

If you’re applying for an internship, a job in a specialized field, or a training (or advanced studies) program, you should look for quality academic references. A professor or teacher with experience in the industry will be able to give a rundown of your performance during training or course studies.

How many references do you need?

Sometimes the job application will indicate how many references you need. If you're unsure, aim for three quality references.

If you are applying for a management role in a highly competitive field, consider expanding this list to five.

The order that you list these contacts matters. Start with the person who holds the most influence, such as a boss or teacher.

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How to choose your professional references

The quality of your professional references is important. You should only choose people who will increase your chances of getting a new job.

When compiling your list of professional references, keep the following 5 tips in mind.

1. Determine the type of role you're looking for

The first question you need to ask yourself is, "what type of role are you looking for?"

Your reference doesn’t always have to match the job, but they should be able to match the required skill sets.

For example, you may be looking for a job in retail, and your reference could comment on your teamwork, customer service, integrity, and cash handling skills.

You may have a list of potential references that you can mix and match, depending on the position you are applying for.

2. Consider individuals you may know at the company

Don’t be afraid to use your connections. If you know people who work at the company, ask them whether they’ll vouch for you.

People are usually happy to help a friend, but they will need to feel confident that they can recommend you. They will be putting their own reputation on the line, so make sure you have a good relationship.

3. Identify connections between your network and someone who works at the company

If there is a company you have your eye on, ask your network whether they know anyone who works there. Networking can be beneficial. Getting a job comes down to “who you know.”

You can start by browsing the Jobcase community of people or check LinkedIn for connections who work for the company you'd like to get hired at.

Having a reference that the hiring manager knows and trusts can help boost your chances of landing the gig.

4. Consider the length of your relationship with the individual

Recommending a candidate is a big responsibility. You should consider how long you've known the person you want to put forth as a reference and the type of relationship you have.

For example, if you worked with an individual for one week back in 1999, they won’t have much to say. They might not even remember you.

But if you've worked closely with a co-worker and supported each other in the workplace, they could be a good choice for a professional reference.

5. Consider what they might say about you

92% of recruiters will do a background check before making a hiring decision, and this process includes calling references.

A professional reference may look impressive on your resume, but what will they say about you? The goal is to have positive feedback, but you shouldn’t assume they'll give you high praise.

Before you apply for your next job, let your reference know they might receive a phone call. You can ask them how they would feel about recommending you.

The top 3 people to use as a professional reference

One glowing reference from a professional can bear more weight than multiple weak references.

So who should you ask? Here are the top three people to consider.

1. Managers you have recently worked with

Managers have authority and usually understand what employers are looking for. If you have a good relationship with a current or previous manager, consider asking them to be your reference.

Try to find someone who’s been your direct supervisor in the workplace. If they've witnessed you in action and can pinpoint specific examples of where you excelled, it will be sure to impress any hiring manager.

2. Work colleagues who understand your previous role

Work colleagues often make good references because they've had an ongoing working relationship with you. They've seen you on a day-to-day basis and can comment on your personal qualities, responsibilities, teamwork, and any tasks you may have performed.

Before you ask a work colleague, think about whether they’ve recently had a positive working experience with you.

3. Academic professionals who know your capabilities

While academic references are often used for internships and school or training programs, they can also support a traditional job application.

Professors and teachers are reputable references. They may have taught you or worked side-by-side in a research project.

Remember, academic references can be in writing and should be from someone that can verify your work ethic. They should still include contact information in case the potential employer has any follow-up questions.

Who shouldn’t you use as a professional reference?

Even though the reference list comes at the end of a resume, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. You should take care to choose the right people, as their recommendation could be the difference between you and another candidate.

Look for references you've worked with recently and avoid anyone who may have something negative to say.

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A professional reference should be a person you've worked with — not a friend, neighbor, or family member.

What if you don't have any references for a job application?

Most people will have someone they can ask to be on your reference list, even if they don’t have any work experience. Consider whether there is a coach, community leader, or teacher who may be able to put in a good word for you.

Alternatively, you can network by seeking out other professionals.

For example, you might consider volunteering or enrolling in a short course. These types of activities will enhance your resume and give you opportunities to meet potential references.

Who to use as a reference when applying for a job

Job seekers can improve their chances of getting a job interview by including professional references in their resumes. This could include a former employer, co-workers, and academic professionals.

Aim for three quality references and try to choose the most relevant people depending on the job title. Before listing an individual as a reference, make sure you give them a heads-up.

Don't be afraid to ask them how they might respond because the aim is to secure a positive review. If you don’t have enough references, networking can be a good idea.

With these tips, you can enhance your resume. For more career advice, visit the Jobcase resource center.

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